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"Run along, make your calls, and enjoy His Lordship's hooley," said Mrs. Maureen Kincaid, "Kinky" to her friends, as she knelt in the hall and sponged Ribena black-currant cordial from a small boy's tweed overcoat. "I'll expect you all back by five, sir, not a minute later. I'd not want the Christmas dinner to be spoiled."
Her employer, Doctor Fingal Flahertie O'Reilly, said over his shoulder, "We'll be on time, I promise, Kinky." He strode off accompanied by his guest, Caitlin "Kitty" O'Hallorhan, and his young assistant, Doctor Barry Laverty.
Kinky shut the front door after them. She imagined that over the excited voices of the children she could hear footsteps crunching through the freshly fallen snow as Doctor O'Reilly led his little party to his big old Rover for the drive to Ballybucklebo House and the marquis' 1964 Christmas Day open house.
It was warmer in the hall with the door shut. Just as well with a dozen chilled little carollers inside drinking hot black-currant juice. She straightened up, inspected her handiwork, and smiled. "There you are, Dermot Fogarty. Good as new, so."
"Thank youse, Mrs. Kincaid." The eight-year-old bobbed his head. "If I'd got my new coat dirty, my daddy would've killed me, so he would."
She tousled his hair. Not for the first time she thought how harsh to her ears the County Down accent sounded, especially when she remembered the softer brogue of her own people down in County Cork.
She'd grown up there on a farm near Beal na mBláth and had left as a slip of a girl of nineteen to come north in 1928. That had been thirty-six years ago. She shook her head. It seemed like no time at all.
"Here." She refilled Dermot's mug, feeling the heat in the delft and inhaling the scent of the black-currant juice. "Try not to spill any more."
"Thank you, Mrs. Kincaid."
Several voices replied, "No thank you, Mrs. Kincaid."
The kiddies were crammed into the hall and overflowing up the broad staircase of Doctor O'Reilly's house at Number 1 Main Street, Ballybucklebo, County Down.
"Then eat up, and drink up, and let's be having a bit of hush." They were quiet now, filling their faces with Kinky's homemade sweet mince pies and hot juice. She beamed over them. She liked children, would have loved to have had some of her own, but that hadn't been meant to be. She smiled sadly to herself.
She probably could have found another fellah here in Ulster, but och, he'd not have been the Paudeen Kincaid she lost so long ago. She saw herself in the hall mirror and thought she'd not been a bad-looking lass when she'd been with Paudeen. Her silver hair, which she wore in a chignon now, was chestnut then and had flowed in soft waves to her shoulders. It was the worry about him one Saint Stephen's Day that had started the turning of it.
She'd been a slim girl then. Now, she knew she could afford to lose a couple of stone, although doing so wouldn't get rid of her three chins. But it was hard not to sample her own cooking, and she did love to cook. She always had, ever since Ma had showed her how all those years ago.
She shook her head, and sure if the years had passed, hadn't they been good ones ever since she'd come here, first as house keeper to old Doctor Flanagan and later on, in 1946, to Doctor O'Reilly when he took over the practice? And hadn't looking after those two bachelor men been a satisfying job, and almost the same as rearing chisellers?
Doctor O'Reilly, learned man that he was, would not get out of the house without egg stains on his tie if she wasn't there to sponge them off or make him change it. He often called his Labrador, Arthur Guinness, a great lummox. Sometimes, she thought with affection, the pot does call the kettle black.
"Pleath, Mithis Kincaid?" A child's voice interrupted her thoughts.
She saw Billy Cadogan, a boy who suffered from asthma. He'd been a patient of the practice since Doctor O'Reilly and Miss Hagerty, the midwife, had delivered him ten years ago. "Yes, Billy?" He looked smart in what must be his brand-new cap and bright red mittens.
He held up his mug. "Pleath, Mithis Kincaid, can I have a toty wee taste more? Ith cold thinging carolth round the houtheth today, tho it ith."
So, she thought, she should have known that Billy was the one lisping when they sang "We Wish You a Merry Christmas."
Before she could answer, Colin Brown chipped in, "Billy's right; it would found er you." Even today he was wearing short pants. His bare knees stuck out from under his overcoat, and his left sock was crumpled around his ankle. Colin was the lad who had single-handedly, as the innkeeper at the recent Nativity play, caused the mother superior to faint. Colin spoke again. "My Da says it's as cold as a witch's tit today, so he does."
Kinky frowned, then seeing the seriousness on the boy's face, realized that he was merely repeating what he had heard his notoriously foul-mouthed father say. "And what would you know of witches, Colin Brown?" she asked.
"Oooh," said Colin, "witches is oul' wizenedy women with wrinkles and warts on their green faces. They have black cats, they wear pointy hats and black dresses, ride around on broomsticks on Halloween night . . . they cast spells, and . . ."—he frowned—"and . . ." Then a smile split his face and his words came out in a rush. "And they get together in ovens."
"Colin means ‘covens.' " That was Hazel Arbuthnot. She was Aggie Arbuthnot's twelve-year-old daughter. She had lustrous black hair, just like her mother. For a moment, Kinky wondered if Hazel had also inherited the family trait of six toes. No doubt Cissie Sloan, Aggie's cousin and the most talkative woman in the village, would know.
"That's right, Hazel, covens." Kinky heard the other children laughing at Colin's discomfiture. "And there's no need to laugh at Colin. He nearly got it right."
The giggling subsided.
"And some witches do cast evil spells and sour the milk, or make the crops fail or animals die—"
"Oooh." Several voices were raised, and Kinky heard sharp in-drawings of breath.
"—but some are good witches." She paused to let that sink in.
"Good witches?" Eddie Jingles asked. He'd had pneumonia two weeks before Christmas. He was better now, but his mother, Jeannie, had very sensibly wrapped him up in boots, thick trousers, a heavy anorak, a green scarf, and a blue-and-white-striped wool toque. "I never knew there was good witches. Are you having us on, Mrs. Kincaid?"
Kinky scowled at him, then let a smile play at the corners of her mouth. "Why would you think I was making it up, Eddie Jingles?"
Eddie blushed and lowered his head. "Sorry."
"Now," she said, "how many of you believe there are good witches? Hold up your hands."
Jeannie Kennedy's hand was the first to go up, then Micky Corry's. Those two had been Mary and Joseph in the Christmas pageant earlier that week. The last hand raised was Colin Brown's, but Kinky had expected that. Colin had a mind of his own.
"Good. So we're all in agreement then?"
"Yes, Mrs. Kincaid," a chorus of voices replied.
"I'm glad to hear it." She lowered her voice and let her gaze wander over the group, looking this one, then that one, right in the eye. "Because my own mother was a good witch, so. My very own mother, and she got it from her mother, my granny."
"Does that make you a witch too, Mrs. Kincaid . . . since your mammy was one?" Colin had his head cocked to one side, his eyes narrowed. "You've no warts on your nose, like."
"Don't be impudent, Colin Brown." She put her face closer to his, flared her nostrils, and widened her eyes. "Or I'll turn you into a tooooadstool."
The communal "oooh" was much louder.
Seeing the look on Colin's face, Kinky softened. "I'm only pulling your leg, son, so, for I'm not a witch at all. I couldn't turn you into anything." Even if I did get the sight to see the future from my mother, Kinky thought, but that's none of their business. "And if I was . . . if . . . I'd be a good witch and lift spells or smell out bad witches or cure people with herbs or find water wells—"
"With a hazel twig?" Billy Cadogan interrupted.
"Or a Hazel Arbuthnot," Colin said, then sniggered and stuck his tongue out at Hazel.
"Less of that, Colin, or I'll not tell you any more," Kinky said.
"Sorry," Colin said. "I'll houl' my wheest. Honest."
"You do that, so," said Kinky. She let a silence hang, and hang, until Hazel said, "Pay him no heed, Mrs. Kincaid. He was just acting the lig. I don't mind. Go on, please tell us more."
Several other children added, "Please . . . please."
Kinky smiled. The sight wasn't the only thing she'd got from her family, and that was a story in itself. Her Da, God rest him, had been a famous seanachie, a storyteller, and Kinky Kincaid, when given an audience, liked nothing better than to spin a good yarn.
"So, it's a story you want?"
"Please." She saw the expectation on the rosy-cheeked faces.
"Very well," she said. "Take off your hats and coats and hang them there, now." She indicated the hall coat stand. "Then go on up to the lounge. The fire's still lit from this morning, and it's warm. Doctor O'Reilly won't mind, seeing it's Christmas Day. There aren't enough chairs for you all, so some will have to sit on the floor. Mind you're careful with your mugs of juice as you go up the stairs, now. Leave a chair for me, and don't be annoying the animals. Arthur Guinness and Lady Macbeth do be upstairs."
The hall was filled with a babel of excited voices as the children struggled out of their outer clothes.
"Now hush. Hush." Kinky had to raise her voice. "Do as I bid," she said. "I'll be up in a shmall little minute with more mince pies."
She waited for quiet. "And then I'll tell you a story of faeries, and the banshee, and the Saint Stephen's Day Ghost, and if we've time—but remember I've a dinner to cook, so only if we've time—I'll tell you how the Saint Stephen's Day Ghost came back four years later."
Excerpted from An Irish Country Girl by Patrick Taylor.
Copyright © 2009 by Patrick Taylor.
Published in 2009 by A Tom Doherty Associates Book.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.