CORCRAIN AND THE FLEMINGS
The Beggar Man
Getting a Fright
I was born in Corcrain, Portadown, in 1936, in one of the four red-bricked houses, facing Corcrain School.
At the time of my birth my grandparents, Sarah Margaret and William John Fleming lived a few doors away in the same row.
Down the road from us, near Danny Boy’s wee shop, in a two-storied, white-washed house with a thatched roof, lived Gramma Fleming. Gramma was my granda’s mother. My granda’s sister Lizzie and Lizzie’s son Matthew lived with Gramma. At that time there were a lot of thatched, white-washed houses in Corcrain. It always caused a stir with the children in the area when the man came to re-thatch the roofs. Bits of thatch would be all over the place. I remember the day they started knocking down the wee white houses to make way for new ones. I didn’t realize that what they were doing was ripping the character out of Corcrain!
Gramma Flaming is as far back as I am able to remember. I was four years old when she died, at the age of 82, the day after my brother Freddy was born.
I remember this tall old lady, dressed in dark clothes down to her ankles and with a patch over one eye. According to my mother she had lost her eye years before, due mainly to neglect and I suppose – ignorance. She developed some irritation and rather than go to the doctor she tried all these remedies suggested by friends and neighbours, until she destroyed her eye altogether.
There is one tale about Gramma which has always stuck in my memory – as related by my mother. Long before I was born, this old beggar man used to call every week with Gramma, as well as with most of the residents of Corcrain. He was supposed to be ‘not right in the head’. He had his regular customers and kept a wee notebook containing all their names and how much money they gave him every time he called and would mark their payments off accordingly. This particular week it was rumoured that he had died. My mother went to Gramma’s house to tell her about his death. Lizzie and Gramma were so upset they sat and cried, for he was, as they said, ‘just a harmless old man’ – a character known to everyone in Corcrain. They were crying sore and my mother wasn’t far from tears herself, when the door knocked. Lizzie went to open it and who should be standing there, but the old man himself – his notebook at the ready, waiting for their weekly contribution. Well, according to my mother, if they cried before, they laughed afterwards!
Another tale about Gramma is one my granda used to tell. The play area
around Corcrain School was enclosed by a wall. At the end of the school there used to be a pump which supplied most of the houses in Corcrain with water. There was also a horse-trough. Horses and carts passing through used to halt at the trough so the horse could have a drink. One night, after dark, Gramma set out to fetch a bucket of water from the pump. She was walking past the school wall, which was almost the height of herself, with the bucket full to overflowing. My granda, who was a boy at the time and being a bit of a devil – sneaked into the school play area and hid behind the wall. As Gramma walked past where my granda was hiding, he climbed up on the wall, placed his hand on top of her head and pressed down. Gramma’s legs gave way. She let out a yell, dropped the bucket, spilling the water all over the road and very nearly fainted.
Many a time my granda would laugh about what he had done, at the same time saying, ‘I shouldn’t have done it. The fright could have killed my poor mother!’
Reading the Tea Leaves
Lizzie – Brightening things up
My granda’s sister Lizzie had a great belief in fortune tellers and used to visit a woman called Nan Jones who lived in Castle Avenue. Nan read the tea leaves. We all knew Nan quite well, so a visit to her house wasn’t always to have our cups read, but we would have come away disappointed if she hadn’t offered. In fact it wasn’t always our cups she read. Sometimes it was a bowl. She would fill a delft bowl with tea and plenty of tea leaves, ask whoever’s fortune she was telling to place their hand over the top of the bowl, then swish it around three times to distribute the leaves. She would then drain off the tea and turn the bowl upside down on the table and finally would start reading the leaves. She was so accurate sometimes it was scary.
Every year, as soon as the good weather arrived Lizzie would have this urge to brighten up her house. She would purchase a tin of gloss paint from Woolworth, then ‘water’ it down with turpentine to make it go further. She would then wonder why there wasn’t the same shine which everybody else achieved when they used gloss paint. Practically everything in her house was given a lick of paint. Once she even painted all the tiles around her fireplace. This was in the latter days of her life, when she had moved to a new council house. One year her brother Alex and his wife, Lily, came over from Scotland to stay with Lizzie for a couple of weeks. Lizzie had only just completed her big painting job, before they arrived. When they sat down on the wooden kitchen chairs they stuck to them. After that, every time they came back for a visit, the first thing Alex did was to test if the chairs were dry, before he sat down.
Joe Hughes’ Clock
My granny and granda – Sarah and Billy Fleming – had seven children – six boys and one girl. Their names were Joshua, William, James, George, Mary, who was my mother, Robert and Alexander.
My granny was called Grimason before she was married. She was a small woman, had very blue eyes and wore her hair in a bun at the back of her head. About the house she wore a big crossover apron to keep her clothes clean. Going out dressed she would put on her best black coat and black hat. She had very fine smooth skin and wore these little round, wire-framed glasses. She hadn’t a tooth in her head and never bothered with false ones, but could crunch an apple as good as if she had a full set. I don’t think she was ever at a dentist in her life, for she used to say – when any of her teeth gave her trouble – she rubbed saltpetre on her gums till the tooth rotted away.
This old aunt of my granny’s used to visit us. She was called Aunt Martha. She wore a real fox fur around her neck. It was a horrible thing! The poor unfortunate fox’s head seemed to be always looking at you with its shiny glass eyes. She also owned a fur coat, which she decided to give to my granny. But my granny wouldn’t be seen dead in it – as she put it. I was only about four of five at the time. Thinking it a shame to let such an expensive garment go to waste, my granny brought it to a dressmaker and had her make it into a coat for me. My granda took one look at me in the coat and said, ‘For goodness sake take it off her. She looks like Maghery Mary.’ That was the end of Aunt Martha’s fur coat!
There is one story which I remember well, concerning both my granny and granda. My granda was great at repairing clocks and watches. Joe Hughes, a friend of the family, who worked on the railway, left his alarm clock with my granda to repair. Joe didn’t know what he was going to do without his alarm to waken him up for his work in the mornings. But my granda promised to have it ready for him that same evening.
Joe duly called at our house for his clock. It was a dirty, wet old night, with everywhere very mucky. Joe refused to enter the house with his mucky boots. So, my granda brought his clock out to him – all repaired and going again.
My granny always gave my granda his full title. ‘You can’t give it to him like that, William John!’ she said.
Off she went to fetch a brown paper bag to put the clock in. There was a long hall in our house which had red tiles on the floor. My granny held open the brown paper bag and my granda dropped the clock inside. But what they didn’t realize was – there was no bottom in the bag! The clock went straight through the bag, to hit the tiles, its innards scattering in all directions.
My granda blamed my granny who kept defending herself by yelling, ‘How was I to know there was was no ass in the bag?’
Growing up in Corcrain
Mrs. Montgomery Tam
While growing up the place I thought of as home was the house we lived in, in the red-bricked row. At one time my granny, granda, father, mother, my uncle Jimmy, my uncle Joss and my brother and I – all lived together in that house, which only had two bedrooms, a kitchen, a scullery and a parlour.
I specially remember our coal hole. It was a scary place. It was pitch dark inside. You looked in and all you could see was black. I imagined big spiders handing from their webs and mice – perhaps even rats – lurking in the dark, their wee bright eyes peeping from their secret hidey-holes. I was always afraid one or the other would jump out at me. One thing for certain – there was no shortage of beetles in our coal hole! Big black beetles – or ‘clocks’ – as they were known. I used to hate having to go downstairs during the night, when they all came out. The minute you opened the kitchen door and put on the light hundreds of them went scuttling in all directions. You could hardly walk across the floor without stepping on them.
We had a closed-in back yard, with a shed, an outdoor dry toilet and a pit. When the toilet was full it was emptied into the pit. A door opened out from the yard into a very large garden, which ended in a hedge with fields the other side.
Men from the council used to come every now and then to empty the pit. They’d sit down in our back garden eating their lunch – not a thought of washing their hands first. Looking back, it now seems terribly unhealthy and unhygienic. But that’s the way it was in those days. Newspaper served as toilet paper. I always thought my Aunt Maggie very swanky because she used to cut all her newspaper into squares, thread a length of string through the squares, then hang them on a nail in the wall.
Our stairs went up to a landing, then turned right and up another few steps to the top landing, where the bedrooms were. At one time we had a big grandfather clock on the first landing. My father had bought it second-hand and it was his pride and joy. My granny fell down the stairs one day and took the clock with her. There were bits of it on every step of the stairs.
My granny used to tell us about a house her and my granda moved into a few years after they were married. It was the custom to hang the saucepan lids on the wall. After they were used my granny always washed them and hung them on their nails. But every morning when she got up they were on the floor. There was no explanation. The nails were still in place and there was no way they could have fallen off. She said they didn’t stay long in that house, for it had an awful feel about it. In fact she was certain it was haunted.
Every Wednesday, either my mother of granny made stew for our dinner. When my granny made it, she used corned-beef, which used to go into ‘threads’ when it was boiled up with the spuds, leaks, onions and carrots. For a drop of tea after our stew we had these gorgeous chocolate marshmallows which my granny used to buy from McComb’s bread man, who drove a big high, horse-drawn bread-cart.
It was great coming home from school when my granny had the griddle hanging from the crook and it full of lovely freshly made soda farls baking over the heat of the fire. As soon as you opened the door there was this great smell of baking. I loved the farls hot off the griddle, with plenty of butter and a sprinkling of sugar. As well as soda farls my granny used to make oven-bread – both plain and fruit – in a black oven-pot which also hung from the crook over the flames. She used to pile hot coal and turf on the pot lid, to help the baking process. My mother told me that when her and her brothers were children – a treat for their tea on a Sunday was a slice of my granny’s fruit soda, spread with butter and jam. It was the only thing in the line of cake they ever saw from one weekend to the next.
Quite a lot of turf was burned on the fire in those days. The turf man called at all the houses, his horse-drawn cart piled high with bags of turf. It used to be about sixpence a bag. About two and a half pence in today’s money. Logs were also burnt. We had a big log on the fire one time which reached across the kitchen – it was so long. Every time a bit burned away the log was shoved further into the flames.
In our house we didn’t have the type of big open fire as they had in country houses. But we had hobs to the side as well as the crook. The hobs were black and full of dents burnt into them by a red-hot poker. Everyone had the habit of poking the fire, then propping the hot poker upright on the hobs. We had what was called a fire-board – a wooden shelf above the fire. We always seemed to have a clock and china dogs sitting on it. At either side was matching pictures of angelic-looking cherubs. We also had a black fender which I loved to sit on in winter, to keep warm. I used to love too, when my mother let me toast bread at the fire. It was great, sitting on the fender holding the bread to the blaze on a long toasting fork. Your face would be as red as the burning coals and indeed sometimes you were forced to wear gloves, the heat would be so fierce on your hands.
It used to be a man came around the doors in a pony and trap, selling milk from a churn. My granny got into the habit of giving the pony a piece of bread. If she hadn’t appeared with the bread I think the old pony would have tried to go up our hall and into the house to look for her! But very little went to waste in our house. All the skins from the boiled potatoes and any scraps of hard bread were put in a colander. It all came under the heading of ‘skins’. When the colander was full my granny used to get me to take it to Mrs. Montgomery, who lived with her three daughters, Martha, Sadie and Peg, in the last house in our row. Mrs. Montgomery kept a few hens and was always pleased to have the skins. She was a very kind woman. She always gave me something for the skins – usually a plain biscuit or a slice of bread and jam.
Another person my granny made me bring our skins to was ‘Oul Tam Gilpin’ – as he was known. Tam had a shop across the road from us, on the other side of the school. He also kept hens. Tam would throw me a sweet across the counter in payment.
Tam’s shop was a great place. When you went in – to the right was this big open fire. Tam seemed to keep his fire lit all the time. There was always the smell of burning turf about his shop. His old armchair with cushions on it and the stuffing hanging out, sat to the side of the fire and in front of it was a couple of long wooden forms. In the evenings, especially on cold winter nights, all the young single people from Corcrain used to meet in Tam’s shop to sit on the forms, talking and drinking lemonade and eating buns which they bought in the shop. The buns were usual either ‘Flies Graveyards’ (currant squares), Paris buns, or what was called Sore Heads (a round bun with a strip or white paper around it). They always seemed to be having a great time. I longed for the day when I was old enough to do the same!
To the left of Tam’s shop was a high wooden counter. Tam sold everything in his shop. Everything under the sun was sitting about the floor – from bags of spuds to spades and rakes and maybe a bunch of brooms. He also sold turf, coal and paraffin oil. In summer he sold canes with fishing nets on the end, which were very popular with us children. A big side of bacon hung inside the shop window. In hot weather you could hardly see the bacon for the flies crawling all over it. Tam used to put loaves of bread in the window. They were never wrapped. It was a common sight to see his cat lying asleep in the middle of the unwrapped bread and maybe a big block of cheese. But no one thought a thing about it. Then, it was all part of life.
Opposite Tam’s shop, near the pump, was the horse trough, which I mentioned earlier. When the weather was good the young people used to abandon Tam’s fire and gather at the trough with their lemonade and buns.
My granny bought most of her groceries from Tam Gilpin. There was talk of loaves going up in price. Somebody said, ‘Before we know it they’ll be charging a shilling each.’
My granny swore that if they ever went up to a shilling she would never buy another morsel of bread.
‘So?’ my granda asked, ‘What will we do? Starve?’
‘Not as long as I’m able to stick the griddle on the fire!’ she replied.
The Beggar Man
Getting a Fright
Reading the Tea Leaves
Lizzie – Brightening things up
Joe Hughes’ Clock
Growing up in Corcrain
Mrs. Montgomery Tam
The First Primroses
Walks around the Country Roads
Finding a Skull
The First World War
A Wee Drop of Drink
Attacked by a Bull – Saved by a Lighted Match
Dead but Wouldn’t Lie down
The Second World War
Ghosts and Lizzie Curry
The Country Fellas Come to Town
The Hay Shifter
The Christmas Rhymers
Maggie’s Birthday Parties
Chapter 9 Alex