KIT - A Biography Of My Mother

by J.H. Dawson



The beginning


The water was blue today, a change from yesterday's bright orange, but it still smelled as foul, as it pushed it's way over the assorted jumble of discarded tin buckets, baths, iron bedsteads, and anything else that could no longer be made use of, and so had been thrown "in't'cut". Nobody really believed that there had ever been fish swimming in the Irwell. At this point on its travels one of its banks was flanked by a thirty foot wall, the gable end of Th'Archies', the viaduct that carried the trains in and out of 'Victoria'. The other side, by an eight foot wall, topped by a four foot iron railing, then a cobbled roadway, a four foot pavement and a terrace of twenty, two-up two­-down houses.


Back George's Row was a cul-de-sac, the far end being blocked by the brick wall that supported Cheetham Hill Road. The driver of the passing tram pressed his foot on the clanger twice, to let anyone, that may be interested, know that he was turning into Corporation Street. The only thing that distinguished the houses in Back George's Row from each other, was their window sills and doorsteps, each one laboriously donkey stoned, by the occupying 'Missus' to her own individual taste, in colours of white, blue, brown and cream, or a mixture of any or all of them. The pavement fronting each house, down to the roadway, was also treated in the same manner. The number, knocker, letter box and door knob were suitably polished with either blacklead, if they were iron, or Brasso where t'posh ones had added their individuality, but whether brass or iron, all gleamed, trying to outshine their neighbour.


The morning was a cold one, so far, there hadn't been any snow, but it wasn't far away. Yesterday had been the first day of 1885, but there was very little to celebrate. Some weeks before Berry's Mill had gone slack and most of the 'hands' had been laid off, to be sent for when things 'picked up', thus making 'things tight'.


The windows of the street were tightly shut against the cold, except number ten, the top sash of which was open a couple of inches. Newly whitewashed, the room, looked bigger than it's nine by eight feet, most of this being taken up by the bed, it's two ends freshly painted a bright green, the pallias restuffed with fresh straw. In the corner nearest the bed was a table, Joe had made it from an orange box, nailing four legs to the inside and covering them with the same paint with which he had done the bed. The box was now covered with a check cloth and looked 'quite something'. On top of the box stood a large enamel basin, inside this stood a large jug and between the legs stood a white enamel bucket. The highly polished blackleaded grate held a fire that glowed red, echoing the touch of frost outside, on the hob bar stood a large iron kettle, also polished, the pebble inside it (to stop it from rusting) adding it's song to the gentle hiss of steam and regular plop of the lid. At the other side of the fire on a solidly built stool (also made by Joe) sat McGill



About fifty, (she didn't really know how old she was), four foot six of sparse body, whose wizened face was predominated by a definite 'Irish conk', the white hair pulled severely back and held in a bun. Her thin body covered by a white linen apron starting from under her chin, tied with strings round her back at the waist and covering her billowing black dress down to her feet, pinch of snuff held between thumb and forefinger. She had been 'doing' for people all her life, first helping Mammie then taking over when Mammie 'went'. Births, Marriages or Deaths, "send for McGill, she'll know what to do". Every neighbourhood had their McGill.


There was nothing else in the room, the floor boards had been scrubbed and rescrubbed until they were white, covered only by the well-washed potato sack near the door, and the home-made pegged hearth rug in front of the fire. The walls were bare but for the holy picture of St. Catherine over the fireplace. The calm gentle eyes on the picture seemed to be smiling down at the bed and on its occupant, Mary, who at this moment, had her eyes closed and looked to be sleeping, but, she had closed them to try and shut out the pain. In two months she would be fifteen if the Almighty let her live that long.


Through the door


"Is she alright McGill?"

"Aye, she'll do" from McGill.


Marty was still there, but then he always was. Eleven months older than Mary, she couldn't remember any time he hadn't been there when she needed him. Was it only yesterday morning after Joe had gone to work that Marty had called "to see if you're alright" that she had 'started'.


"Ill go and get Joe to come home Mary" suggested Marty. 

"You will not, he'll get the sack for having time off, and anyway Martha will be in soon" panted Mary.

"Look Mary", (from Marty) Da will be home for his dinner, let me and him go and ask Mammie, Da'll make her come, you know he will".

"I say No, she'll come if she wants to, otherwise I don't want her" replied Mary.


Oh, it's starting again, Mother of God don't let it be a bad one. Breathe out Mary, keep your mouth open, let it go, save your strength. Mammie why don't you come? Mary thought about the conversation with Mammie.


"And who's this spalpeen you've been lallygoggin with lady?"

"Who me, Mammie?"

"Yes you.   Well, I'm waiting!"

"Don't know what you mean".  


Her head shook rapidly so her thick black curls would cover her face and Mammie wouldn't see how wcarlet it had gone.


"Well Luke, (her eldest brother), isn't blind and if I find he's right and it was one of THEM, I'll have the skin off your back, d'hearlady?"

"I hear you Mammie."


She'd worked with Martha at Berry's and liked her. Well, she'd reasoned, what if she is one of THEM, she's nice and I like her. He would meet them sometimes walking home from work.


"Oh, it's our Joe, we was just talking about5 you, wasn't we Mary?"

"Well you was, Hello Joe".

"Hello" said Joe.


That's all the great gump would say, him with his straight back and long legs, his dark brown hair and even darker big brown eyes that she caught weighing her up every time she glanced at him. Eyes that looked right into a girl's heart, and made her blush, so she had to look away. He was so shy the great gump.


He'd first seen her walking home from work with 'our Martha'. It really looked as though she was floating on a cloud with her raven curls dancing around two of the biggest blue, blue eyes he'd ever seen, and those lips, "Well" he could kiss them till her head fell off, but every time he started to talk to her she'd turn away and cut him dead. Well, what if she was one of the Irish that Mam was always telling them to keep away from, Mam hasn't seen this one, and he hadn't lived for nineteen years to let this one get away from him. Just wait, you'll be walking home tomorrow girl. You can be as snooty as you like, but I won't let you get away from me.


"Not long Mary, that's it relax yourself."

"Is everthing alright McGill?"

"You're doing fine lass, try and rest".  


Marty brought a shovel of coal in.


"Are you alright Mary?"

"Yes Marty, I'm fine".

"She looks awful pale and tired, are you sure I shouldn't go for the midwife McGill?"

"Will you listen to Dr. Ryan hi'self, out with you, mjake yourself sueful and brew some tae".


She'd seen him there but not let on, with Mammie's bag of shopping on her arm, it was easy to let go of one of the handles, with everything spilling out, and her pretending such a tiswaz, and him almost rushing to her rescue.


"Let me help you Mary", at least he remembered her name.

"Oh, thank you Joe", as though she'd only just noticed him, and those big cow eyes of his making her blush to her roots.

"It's very heavy for you, shall I carry it to your corner?"

"Yes it is, thank you Joe".


Well, he wasn't all that shy once you gave him a good shove. Yes, she decided, she liked the cut of him, even if he was one of THEM the great gump.


There was another place, over there, that he'd missed, he hadn't made a good job of this ceiling, sure how could anyone do anything proper with Marty helping them, and him having them laughing and joking and having them on. Oh, Holy St. Catherine hold me, it's coming back, make it hurry up, Blessed Catherine stay with me.


He'd seen her turn the corner, then looked the other way, he'd wait until she was passing, then nod to her, and just see if her snooty highness would let on, and suddenly she was there with the stuff rolling all over the pavement.


She was so dismayed and all forlorn, he'd collected her stuff, then noticed how flushed she was, she must be sickening from something. He'd better carry this heavy bag and see she got home alright. Even if she was Irish, it felt good having her by his side, her hand like a feather clinging to his arm. 'What shall I do if she faints?' but she didn't. As a matter of fact she wasn't really snooty when you got to know her.


"Will you be alright now Mary?"

"Yes thanks Joe".

"Well, I see you again then".

"Yes thanks Joe".


She must be ill, she's gone flushed again. I wish she'd say something else beside 'Yes Joe' and 'Thank you Joe', still it was a beginning and he would definitely see her again.


He'd wanted to have the day off and stay with her.


"You'd best go, start having day soff and they'll find someone else, besides McGill will be here in an hour, nothing will happen 'til then, and don't suppose Marty will look for work till tomorrow, so he'll be around".

"Which tomorrow?" said Joe smiling.

"Oh you know Marty, but he'll get a job soon".

"Aye, like Nelson'll get his eye back" still smiling.


Just then McGill arrived.


"How are you feeling lass?   How often are they? 

"They've been getting stronger all night McGill, do you think it'll be much longer?"


McGill wiped her nose and finger and thumb, made sure no snuff had spilled on the clean white apron then; "Let's have a look shall we?"


"How can I take you home Joe, Mammie would kill me if she knew I was seeing you, she thinks all Prodies are heathens".

"Well I'll just tell her straight, and she can takeit out of that".

"That's what you think, she can lash Luke to nothing with her tongue and he's make two of you".,

"Something will have to be done or we'll never get married".


To hear him say the words made her cling closer to him, and this started that problem again, it was getting more and more difficult to talk him away from it. She'd known it was going to happen, when he lead her to the burial ground, he was being so gentle with her. Well, she'd be extra firm with him, but with his hands making her tingle from head to toe, and his lips like hot pokers searing into her neck then setting her lips on fire, and the very earth beneath her beginning to tremble, didn't the explosions start all round them, and her arms so tight round his neck, the more she pushed him away only brought him closer to her. She'd known it was a mistake to let him lead her to the burial ground, but he was so gentle with her and she did love him. She thought she was dying when the final eruption happened.


"Oh God, send your holy angels for me".


Then the tears started, at first because she couldn't stop them and as the earth beneath began to stop its trembling, because she knew it had happened to her, and now she'd never be able to look into his darling eyes again, he'd push her away, and run off into the night, hating her.   he didn't, he'd walked her back to 'their place', his arm holding her so firmly and yet so softly, talking to her, it seemed , in whispers, but she couldn't answer, the tears were still there.   then in the safety of 'their place', he'd lifted her chin and kissed her, no flames, no explosions, but so that all her tears were gone, and she knew she would never be as happy as she was now.  


"I'm coming in with you now to tell her and have done with it".


She knew Mammie would set Luke on to him, he wouldn't stand a chance.  Well no-one was going to hurt her darling, neither Luke nor Mammie herself.


"No, I'll find the righ time, and I'll tell her".

"Make it soon Mary, soon".

"I will, I will". 


 Three weeks!!  What could she do?  Mammie knew something was wrong.


"You'd better stay in and go to bed early, you don't look well.   Do you feel alright?"

"Yes Mammie, I'm alright".,

"Well you don't look it to me, I'll get you a tonic to buck you up".


Buck me up, she thought, Oh, Mammie if you knew, you'd strangle me with your bare hands.   She was afraid to tell Joe, he'd go straight to Mammie, besides she might go alright. Three weeks!! There had been no more of that burial ground business, though he'd wanted to, and many times it had taken all her own time to change the subject. Three weeks!! What could she do? It was Marty who got it out of her, trust him to know she was in trouble.


"Joe and Mammie has got to know right away" said Marty.

"Oh not Mammie, Marty, not Mammie".


Marty could get away with a lot with Mammie using his blarney. Mammie said she let him off a lot because he wasn't as strong as he could be.


"Yes, I'll tell Mammie" but the thought of it made even him quail.  "I'll tell you what, I'll tel Da and let him tell Mammie".

"Will it be alright Marty?"

"Don't worry Mary, it'll be alright, now you go and tell Joe right away".


Wasn't Marty always there when you needed help.


"Holy God McGill, it's three o'clock, does it always take this long, will I go and ask the midwife to look in?"


Marty had been home for his dinner and told Mammie, but she had pretended not to hear him, he knew he was wasting his time and had come back to Mary's. McGill finished her pinch, the relatives were always the most trouble.


"She's doing fine, the water's broke it won't be long now".


Mary had made her mind up, there'd be no more of that there, she wasn't going through this again, and just look at that ceiling, he must have thrown that whitewash on from the other side of the cut, he couldn't do anything right, no definitely no more, he could go back to his Mam, she could have her precious son back.


"Holy Mother of God here was another one, St. Catherine hold me, Oh Mammie, Mammie, come and hold my hand".

"Bear down Mary, that's it lass, bear down".


 She'd gone straight to Joe and told him.


"Three weeks and you never told me?"


The hurt look in his eyes, brought her tears, she clung to his neck, and all her heavy burden that she seemed to have been carrying forever flooded out of her. He waited until the sobbing died away and she was quiet again.


"S'who likes it or not we've got to get married now!"


She felt safe, he'd take care of her now.


"We'll go round to our Martha's, she'll brew up and we'll decide what to do".


Martha lived at Number 8 Back George's Row, married six years, she'd 'lost' two and seemed unlikely to have any more. On opening the door to them, she saw 'something was up' and ushered them in.


"Why don't you slip out for one now Ted, then you won't be late in?"

"Aye love" said Ted reaching for his coat, he'd seen the same 'something', "Ah won't be long".

"T'kettle's singing, I'll make a nice drink and you can tell me all about it" from Martha.


At Tillstone Place, Marty waited till Da went to the back, and followed him into the yard. In whispers as quick as he could, he told Da.


"Me darlin' ye say, and with one of THEM, well hasn't the devil laid his hand on us this day?"

"Mammie needs to be told" this hurriedly from Marty.

"She does, and may all the Saints in heaven be around this night" from Da.   Mammie was waiting.

"What was all the whispering about?"

"Bridie, us had best sit down, for the Almight God has looked sideways on us today".

"And for what?" she stood by the table.


Da told her, and Marty waited for the house to shatter about them all. She sat down slowly, never taking her eyes of Da.


"Mavoureen ye say, defiled by one of THEM, me sweet innocent flower crushed by a heathen?"  Still quietly;

"The three of yus will go out and find the spalpeen that done it and kick seven sorts of shit out of him".

"Now Bridie, don't be going on, isn't it caring for this bucko that she is".


And then it started. She'd never forgiven him, for her having to give up her home, in the most blessed of all lands, to come to this heathen place, here to lose her beautiful Tommy as well as the one she was carrying. The tirade had gone on 'til Da could stand no more.


"Arrgh, I'm going for a jar".

"Yes go, you homerthorn, that hasn't the guts to defend his own fair sweet child, well she'll com ein her no more, and you, (to Marty), the giddleagog that could bring the cursed news, can go and find her and tell her that from me".


Da had gone looking with Marty, and had found Joe and Mary coming to Tillstone Place. Knowing it was useless to carry on to there, Marty had stayed them, so Joe took them all back to Martha's house.   Martha welcomed them, then Joe to Da;


"Mr. Ryan, Mary and me and Martha have talked it over, and Martha says children belong to their mother first, and it's only fair she should say where the wedding will be and how the children will be brought up, so I'm going to St. Patrick's with Mary".

"Well now lad, you said that well", and to Mary "And you, Mavoureen what'll you be after sayin'?"

"He's good Da, I know he is, I want to be with him".

"Oh macustla if yous can say that, he can't be all bad, but what of your Da and mammie Joe, how'll they be feeling to all this?"


Joe looked dismayed, so much had happened in the last hour, he hadn't thought of his parents. Now it was Martha's turn.


"When Joe and Mary left to to to your house I slipped round to Mothers and told her and Dad.  Mam threw a fit, but Dad said Joe is old enough to know his own mind and as long as he knew waht he was doing there wasn't much they could do about it.  I left Dad quietening Mam down" said Martha.

"Sure things are lookin' better all round" said Da, "but Glory be to God, don't let the queen one cast her eye on yus or she'll pulp the two of ye, just be giving me time to talk her round, and where'll you stay me poor darlin' 'til your nuptials?"


Ever helpful, Martha was there again.


"She'll be alright on the couch for a couple of weeks.   The house next door is empty, tomorrow I'll take them to the office and speak for the key for them"


The following morning Marty took Joe to see Father Duffy and after a quiet word with Joe the Father agreed to call the banns on Sunday for the first time.   Good as her word, Martha took them to the office where, on her say so, they were given the key to number 10.  With Maty to help, the three of them scoured it from top to bottom and Joe and marty had colour washed the walls.   Da had met her and given her a gold guinea, on pain of death never to let the queer one know.   so armed she'd gone to the good second hand shop on Rochdale Road, there to purchase the bed, newly painted by Joe, a good table and four strong chairs, and a cupboard for her food.   it was Mrs. Smith, Joe's Mam, who brought the curtains to her, rather cool, but friendly like.


"You'd better come round at tea time when Joe's home and have your dinner with him there's plenty".


Things were a bit strained until his Dad came home, when, much to Joe's obvious delight, they certainly improved. Although never really gushing, Mam Smith accepted Mary, something that was never to happen between Joe and Mammie Ryan and when Martha and Marty stood for them to be married Joe and Mary gave their vows without either Mam or Mammie hearing them but Dad and Da were both there to give them a blessing.


"Push harder Mary".

"I am pushing".

"Come on this time, push harder".

"McGill, I tell you I can't push any harder".

"Come on lass, one really big one, now Mary now".

"Sweet suffering Jesus is it out?"


Then McGill holding it by the ankles and it wriggling and already roaring its head off, and Mary completely spent all pain forgotten.


"What is it McGill, what have I got?"

"A fine strong healthy girl Mary lass, a fine strong healthy girl" and looking to the picture Mary said

"Thank you blessed Catherine, thank you".


Joe had got home from work only minutes before Mary's scream and the first wail of the baby, and now that McGill had 'finished' Mary and the baby, he was allowed in, straight to Mary with the sweetest kiss.


"Are you alright luv?"

"Yes Joe I am now".


Looking to the baby lying in a drawer snuggly wrapped in the shawl Mary herself had knitted, with only a mop of black curly hair showing, and back again to Mary his eyes brimming with delight


"Ee Mary you're marvellous".


and leaning over her to smother her face in kisses 'til she was almost suffocated, hadn't she suffered enough today the great gump, but she didn't stop him.


Marty and Martha stood at the foot of the bed watching, Martha's eyes streaming with tears. She had been in and out all day fussing around making herself busy, it was she who brought the biggest drawer from her chest and the pillow covered with a white case edged with the finest lace made with her own hands, for the baby, the tears she was shedding were for the baby she had made it especially for.


When they were alone, Mary had told Joe how St. Catherine had helped her, and it was only fair to name the child after her.


"Catherine Smith sounds fine to me luv".


It was Mam Smith that shortened that to Kate, and Marty that shortened even that to Kit, and so she was known to all as Kit Smith.   All that is, except Mammie who never gave her anything but her full Catherine.


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