Green are the hills far away
‘I need to look in the old suitcase where you keep all the photos.’ I said to Kathryn as we sat in her poky flat in London.
It was a cold, rainy, summer’s day and we had a few hours to kill before catching up with some old friends at the Pink Rupee in Cricklewood. There was no way I fancied venturing outside as I listened to the rain beating against the sash windows, gazing at the grey skyline.
‘Ok, I’ll get it down from the attic. Put the kettle on, maybe some coffee will warm us up a bit.’
I padded into the kitchen, cursing the fact that I was freezing cold on a midsummer’s day in London. Why was I always surprised, I should know better.
‘Here it is,’ she said.
I wanted to look out some old photos from our childhood, ones of Cyprus which would help to bring back memories of the period I was writing about in my book. I dragged the heavy suitcase into the lounge, and sat on the carpet ready to sift through all the photos my parents had accumulated over the years. As I opened old albums, untied ribbons around packets of letters, my parents’ life together began to unfold before my eyes. In amongst the bundles at the bottom of the suitcase I saw a yellowing exercise book, RAF issue. It was filled with my mother’s expressive handwriting. At the top of the first page she had written a title: ‘Green are the hills far away.’
‘What’s this?’ I asked Kathryn.
‘It’s Mother’s story; she wrote it down just before she died.’
’ Why didn’t you tell me about it before?’ I asked.
‘I did.’ She answered, irritation at my selective memory clearly registering in her voice.
‘Ok, sorry, let me read it then.’
I moved over to the armchair and placed my coffee mug beside me. I curled my feet up underneath me, propped myself up with a cushion, then opened the exercise book and started to read my mother’s story.
I am writing this story for you, Kathryn and Mary from Johannesburg where I’m visiting Mary and John. I’m getting old now and I want you to know about my early life in Ireland.
I know I haven’t spoken to you much about my childhood, it has always been a bit of a sore subject with me. It was such an unhappy period of my life, but I think the time has come to explain to you why I have always been so reluctant to go home to Ballinrobe. It holds bad memories for me. My father died of consumption six weeks after I was born in 1917, leaving my mother to bring up my sister Marie and I single-handedly. He had been in the sanatorium for six months before he died; consumption was rife in Ireland in those days. He had worked in a draper’s shop and earned enough to keep the family in food and shelter; there was no need for my mother to work. Now here she was with very little money, two small children and a small widow’s pension. She always considered herself as being from the better part of town, living as she did on High Street and she hated the thought of having to earn a living. But the reality was she had to generate some form of income so she begrudgingly took to dressmaking and doing alterations for people in the town. She kicked against it, always considering herself to be above this, preferring to think of it simply as a service she was providing for her friends.
From my early childhood she always made it clear that Marie was her favourite, the intellectual of the family. No chance of Marie being sent to the well to get water every evening. She couldn’t be parted from her studies. That duty always fell to me. The bucket was heavy to carry and I was scolded if I spilled too much on the climb back up the hill.
‘You’ll never make anything of yourself,’ my mother said to me. ‘You’ll come to no good,’ she continued as she gave me yet another hiding. Marie would watch from behind her book, smiling sheepishly. She knew there was nothing she could do to help.
‘Kathleen O’Toole, come up to the front of the class!’ was a common refrain from the nuns at school. I had misbehaved yet again and had to take my punishment, being hit with the strap in front of all my classmates.
I was naughty, a rebel, my mother was expecting me to misbehave, so why disappoint her? When I look back now, the things I did were so minor, but at the time they were seen as major misdemeanours, bringing shame on my family and tarnishing my mother’s genteel image in the community.
One of the worst things I did was to cover my school books with paper from the draper’s shop full of pictures of brassieres, corsets and stockings. Just imagine the drama it caused in the early 1920s when the nuns were confronted with this in the classroom!
Part of the curriculum was domestic science. So what did that entail? Why doing the nun’s laundry of course! We stood in the basement of the convent swirling their long johns and bodices around in steaming vats of water, our hands red and burning from the harsh detergent. One day it got too much for me and when time came to iron their undergarments I decided to starch their long johns and stand them to attention along the passage. You can imagine the response that evoked. Kathleen O’Toole beaten mercilessly with the strap again, not to mention the hiding from my mother when I got home.
‘Marie is such a lovely, sweet child. I don’t know where you came from. We would all be better off if you had never been born.’ So continued my mother’s almost daily refrain. I couldn’t understand why both she and the nuns were so heartless. They were supposed to be holy people; my mother went to Mass every day and was a pillar of the church. How could she spend her life abusing me like this? Even as a child I realized that there was a contradiction between her fervent faith and the hand raised to beat me at every opportunity. And all under the gaze of the myriad of statues of Our Lady.
I got on well with Marie though. I knew it wasn’t her fault; she was quiet and sweet, always in her books, cut off from the harsh reality of the outside world. As I grew older, things didn’t change. I was always expected to be up to no good even when I wasn’t. Marie was always the perfect one. It was a miserable and repressed childhood; the atmosphere was oppressive, never carefree. I was allowed no freedom; I could never express myself. I knew as soon as I got the opportunity I had to leave and start a new life for myself.
I turned to Kathryn, stretching my legs out from underneath me.
‘She always made light of her rebelliousness, I had no clue how rough life was for her.’
‘I know’ Kathryn replied. ‘That must be why she was so careful to treat us both equally, never showing favouritism. It makes such sense now; she took it to the other extreme, keeping things so impartial. Do you remember her favourite saying: “You are no better than anyone else and no-one is any better than you”?’
‘Of course I do.’
‘Now we know where it comes from. Thank goodness she turned her bad experience into such a positive one for us.’
The rain had stopped and it was time to get ready for our outing to the Pink Rupee. There was a lot more to read but I was glad of the chance to take a break. I had enough to think about for now. I closed ‘Green are the hills far away’ and placed it carefully in the suitcase on top of our baby albums.