by Cynthia Costain
A child’s world is very small and mine had shrunk. No grandmother, aunts and cousins- no warm tropical sunshine and kind black nurse. I arrived in England when I was four years old with my Mother to meet an unknown Father in a strange country and to live in a cold industrial city in Northumberland.
This was my new world: the small detached brick house with a small garden front and back enclosed by a hedge with a wooden garden gate. Too young for school and restricted by protective parents and bad weather I knew no other children until one afternoon there was a knock at the front door and when my mother answered it there was a small red-haired boy. “Can the little girl come out to play?”
Here was my first friend, Dennis Sheedy who lived up the street. Dennis had a younger brother Bobby, and with them I was allowed to play, first of all in our garden or in theirs and finally in the street. It was a small dead-end street and made a splendid playground for children as there was very little traffic- the milkman and the postman in the morning and then later the vegetable man and the baker both with horse drawn vans. On Thursdays the fisherwoman Lizzie would come on the electric train from Cullercoats on the sea with her heavy creel on her back, dressed in the traditional costume of thick navy blue skirt and striped petticoat and apron, her bonnet on her head and a black woolen shawl tied around her shoulders if it was cold. It was exciting to see Lizzie open the big wickerwork creel, the lid of which made a chopping board and watch her bring out her big knife and deftly fillet the fish which my Mother chose. While she drank a cup of tea I would listen to the conversation but I don’t think my Mother understood any more than I did what Lizzie was saying until she hoisted her burden and marched on to the next house, saying, “Weel it’s aff the noo- t’ra hinny!”
In England at this time the memory of the Great War was still pervasive. The father of my friend Nancy down the street had been killed and her mother was left to bring up her little girl and her delicate asthmatic son. As children we could not realize the whole tragic aftermath: the loss of a whole generation of young men, the wounded still in hospitals, the jobless, the disabled begging in the streets but these were the conditions around us. In Ireland, the fighting continued in what was called “the Troubles”. My father was born and brought up in County Antrim in the North of Ireland and was a Presbyterian. Dennis’s father was from Lisdoonvarna in Southern Ireland and they were Roman Catholics. My father was overseas during most of the wartime years and I never knew when Mr. Sheedy left Ireland and settled and married a northern English girl, but it was generally assumed that he had been with the Sinn Fein, the Irish Republicans fighting for free rule from Britain. Nevertheless the two men were good friends and neighbours and I never heard any dissension between them.
Across the road lived an older man and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Price. They were a quiet couple with no children who “kept to themselves”. However, they must have been fond of children because when Dennis and Bobby and I were playing in the street Mr. and Mr. Price would sometimes invite us in for lemonade and a biscuit. Even better, in the summer they would take us into their garden and let us eat raspberries, which was a special treat. One evening at home I heard my father say to my mother that Mr. Price had been a Black and Tan. I thought that this was strange since he wasn’t black and I didn’t know the word Tan. Only when I was older I realized that the Black and Tans were the hated British Police in Ireland who fought a guerrilla war with the Sinn Fein for many years. Three men who left Ireland and enmity behind.
One day Mrs. Price gave me a gold bracelet as a present.
“Look what Mrs. Price gave me today, “I said as I ran home and showed the old-fashioned link bracelet of heavy gold. My father looked at it and feeling its weight said, “I think there must be some mistake. This is much too valuable a present for a little girl. I’d better take it back.” I did not really mind as it was something a grown up would wear, much too big for me, so my father went over to see Mrs. Price and I forgot about it. After a while he came back with it still in his hand.
“Mrs. Price wants you to keep it,’ he said. “I’ll put it away carefully and you shall have it when you are older.” Then he turned to my mother and said, “She wants Cynthia to have it- for friendship.”