CORCRAIN AND THE FLEMINGS
Everybody knew my granda as wee Billy Fleming. He always wore an old tweed cap which he seldom took off, except when going to bed or sitting down to a meal. He had the darkest eyes – so brown they were almost black. When he was pleased they lit up like stars. He was a very quiet man and hated rows. He hated to hear people ridiculing their neighbours, and had a habit of saying, ‘Sure they have their way of going on and we have ours.’
My most fond memories of my granda, is going through the fields with him, or for walks along country roads.
At the first sign of spring he would say, ‘It’s time we were out looking for primroses.’
Off we would go – over the fields, crossing ditches and drains, searching banks – and all the places we were likely to find the first primroses. My granda always knew where to look. I would return home with more primroses than my hands could hold.
At the end of the summer he would take me in search of mushrooms. Like the primroses, my granda always seemed to know the exact fields where we would find them. We used to carry them home tied in my granda’s big handkerchief. Once we got home he would make what he called ‘Mushroom Ketchup’, by boiling the mushrooms in a saucepan along with a knob of butter, a little water and plenty of salt and pepper. Sometimes he would add a wee bit of curry. He was very fond of curry, which he developed a taste for while in the army. Every time my granny made soup or stew, he would add curry powder to his. My mother always said the smell reminded her of the yellow stuff you feed to hens.
He always made a great cup of tea. ‘Sergeant Major tea,’ he called it. He would pour the boiling water on the tea leaves in the tea pot, then put the pot over the heat till the steam lifted the lid, and the liquid ran down the sides. It was as bitter as gall, but great stuff. If he happened to be given sweets when he was out he always put them in his pocket for me and my brother Freddy. They were always the unwrapped boiled variety. After being in my granda’s pocket they had wee bits of fluff and particles of tobacco from his cigarettes sticking to them. We ate them anyway!
Some of our favourite walks were round by Kilmagamish, or perhaps round by The Rector’s Turns and home by Drumcree, or past Battlehill or to Selshion Moss. It wasn’t unknown for us to ‘fog’ an orchard on the way. My granda’s method of fogging was to search for windfalls. I remember many a time us trespassing on someone’s property and the owner turning up. But never a word was said, for the farmers all knew my granda and didn’t mind in the least him helping himself to their windfalls.
There was one particular walk we used to go on - round by Ballybay, where there was a big steep bank, at the top of which was a hedge and behind the hedge an orchard of the loveliest big yellow eating apples you ever saw. We used to climb up the bank, put our hand through the hedge and retrieve as many as possible. Sometimes my granda would cook the apples by placing them on a bed of hot coals on the fire. ‘Coddling’, he called it! Other times he wouldn’t cook them, but would scoop them out with a spoon and we would all sit round waiting for spoonfuls of mushy apple which we thought delicious!
It was great going to Selshion Moss. When the time of year was right there were plenty of blackberries and raspberries to be had. Big black drumsticks, as we called them, grew in the swampy places, also a little white fluffy plant we called rabbits’ tails. There was a path through the moss with a drop down each side where the turf was dug away. I remember once my granda, my mother and Freddy and I going for a walk through the moss. My granda was dallying behind us. Next thing we heard, ‘Help! Help!’
We stopped and looked back. My granda had disappeared! Sure that he had fallen into the bog, we raced back, our hearts thumping with fright. There he was standing on a wee ledge beneath the level of the path, hiding from us.
Sometimes on our walks we would call with this old man my granda knew. He lived in a wee mud house that looked as if it was ready to tumble down. But he always had a roaring fire going in the open grate and my granda told me – one time he visited him, when I wasn’t with him, and discovered him frying eggs and bacon on a long-handled spade by holding it over the flames. My granda said he gave him some and it was the best fry he ever had.
My granda never believed in running to the graveyard, as he put it, after someone died. He said there was no point – there was no one there. However, more often than not, anytime we passed Drumcree church while out on our walks, we paid a visit to the graveyard while we were at it. It is strange, but Drumcree graveyard never seemed to be a place for the dead. Just a special place I went with my granda, where he pointed out graves and headstones of relations and family who had gone before. The sun always seemed to be shining and the graves all blooming with flowers.
Other times we would go round by Drumcree, then past Walsh’s Nursery, where my uncles Bob and Alex worked. We always went into the nursery to visit them at their work and most times came away with a couple of tomatoes, which were grown in abundance in the greenhouses, or perhaps a bunch of flowers. Walsh’s owned a big lassie-type collie dog called Tim. It was always running around the place – a real old pet. My granda told me that when the dog was younger, Billy Grimason, a cousin of my granny’s who was very fond of dogs, took it in hand and started grooming it, then entered it in different dog shows. It was called Drumcree Tim and won all before it.
That same Billy Grimason worked in a draper’s shop in Portadown. When anything had to be delivered he would do so on a bike with a big wire carrier in front. Many a time when I was a child and he was delivering in Corcrain he gave me a ride in the carrier – my legs dangling over the side.
One day on a walk round by the Rector’s Turns, the road Drumcree Rectory is on, my granda and I entered the fields and ended up at the back of the rectory. It was the old rectory then. Another one has been built since. We came across a place amongst the trees where rubbish had been dumped. We were having a look through the rubbish when I suddenly saw what I thought was a large shell, lying on the ground.
‘Look at this, Granda!’ I shouted. ‘I’ve found a big shell!’ Using both hands to pick up the shell, I turned it around only to discover it was a human skull! I dropped it in a hurry letting out such a scream! But my granda just laughed. ‘The poor fella, whoever he is, will do you no harm!’ he said.
‘What will we do, Granda?’ I wanted to know. By this time my granda was holding the skull.
‘We’ll do nothing. Let him lie where he is.’ With that he put the skull back on the ground, face down, the way I had found it.
We told the ones at home all about our gruesome find. The strange thing was, it never even crossed our mind to report it to the police. But a few months after this, everybody was talking about the skull which had been found behind the rectory. Someone else had come across it and they had reported it. Anyway, it turned out a medical student used to lodge at the rectory and the skull was part of the skeleton he had for his studies. Probably the ‘poor fella’ was someone who had left his body to medical science and his skeleton had ended up with the student. Whoever he was, I bet he never imagined his poor oul head would be rattling about a rubbish dump frightening the life out of people!
The First World War
A Wee Drop of Drink
My granda Fleming fought in the First World War. He joined the Royal Irish Fusiliers on 19th August, 1914. He was badly wounded at Loos on the 7th August, 1916. He spent a long time in hospital in France and was finally discharged as medically unfit on the 23rd April, 1917. He arrived home on crutches and my granny used to say she had to collect him at the railway station and sign for him, as if he were a parcel. My mother told me about a young girl who lived in John Street, Portadown, who had something wrong with her legs and couldn’t walk without crutches. Only, she didn’t have any crutches, so was confined to the house. Once my granda was able to do without his he gave them to this girl.
My granda would never talk about the war, no matter how much we tried to persuade him. I think because it was so horrific and he was such a very quiet, peace-loving man – like so many more, he found it a terrible experience. The only thing he used to delight in telling us was – how this young officer saved his life by carrying him on his back to the first-aid post after he was wounded. However, one day he did talk a little. It happened a new young curate was installed in Drumcree church and eventually got round to visiting the family. The particular day he called at our house my granda was in bed not well, so my mother invited the curate upstairs to see him. Somehow the conversation came round about the First World War. When the curate learned my granda had fought and was wounded in it, he asked him about it. For the first time, my granda opened up and started giving a short account of what it was like.
Becoming carried away with his story, he forgot he was talking to a minister. My granda seldom swore, but next second he came out with, ‘Bejaysus, I had just come out of the trench and this big shell hit me on the back of the legs!’ Suddenly realizing what he had said, he stopped talking and glanced at my mother. My mother looked back at him, biting her lip, her face as red as a beetroot. My granda just gave a wee smile, his eyes shining. ‘I put my foot in it – didn’t I?’ he said, after the curate had left.
That same curate hardly ever passed our door without calling to have a yarn with him.
One tale he did tell us about the war was how one day he looked out of the trench he was in and who was coming across the battlefield but his brother. ‘What brings you here?’ he shouted at him. ‘Why in God’s name didn’t you stay at home?’
There are so many tales about my granda! Some I heard from my mother, some I was there to experience myself. He liked a drink now and then, but could never enter the house without my granny or my mother knowing he had taken a drop.
‘You’ve been in the pub, boyo!’ my granny would accuse him. He could never deny the fact, for when he took a drink at all, his eyes gave him away. They would be dancing in his head. All he would ever reply to my granny’s accusations was, ‘Aye, indeed! Just so, Sarah! Just so!’ It was a favourite expression of his.
One time when he had a drink on him, my uncle Alex was walking home with him along what was then called the New Road. It had a thick double hedge. Alex was only a young fellow and was stone-cold sober, but my granda kept knocking him into the hedge and telling him, ‘Look at you – you’re drunk! You can’t stand on your feet!’ When they arrived home he told everyone Alex was drunk and he had to help him home!
That same hedge had much to put up with. My mother told me one time, just after she had left school, her and a friend were walking along the New Road, when they met up with my granda. He had a wee drop of drink on him and as usual when he had taken drink, he was full of mischief. He lifted them one at a time, amidst much screaming and shrieking and set them on top of the double hedge. Apparently they had an awful job getting down again.
I mentioned earlier how my granda could repair clocks and watches. Well, one other time when he was confined to bed, he decided to repair this pocket watch someone had left with him. He had this box full of springs, screws, pendulums and all manner of innards belonging to clocks and watches. He sat up in bed with a newspaper spread out over the covers and all his accoutrements on top. Anyway, after he had the watch repaired, he thought he would oil its works, so asked my mother to fetch him his wee can of oil which he kept downstairs in a cupboard in the scullery. My mother fetched the can and my granda oiled the man’s watch, then wondered why, after a short while it stopped again. He had a look at the can my mother had brought him and discovered it was not oil, but clear varnish!
When he was repairing clocks or watches in the kitchen, he was forever dropping a screw or spring – usually belonging to a watch, for they were very tiny and hard to grip. He would take the eye-glass he always used when working at watches, from his eye, look at us all and say, ‘I need a lend of your eyes!’ It would end up a game. The rest of us would crawl around on all fours, searching the oilcloth floor-covering for something so tiny as to be almost invisible. If the floor hadn’t been brushed and there happened to be crumbs or dust it was hard to distinguish one from the other. And while we were searching, my granda would calmly light a Woodbine, sit back in his chair and wait for the shout, ‘I’ve found it! I’ve found it!’ There was no television then and little in the way of entertainment, so when my granda dropped a tiny screw it was a great distraction. A kind of competition to see who could find it first.
He was always futtering at something or other. My mother said he once made this great dog kennel for whatever dog he owned at the time. He built it in the house, and then discovered he couldn’t get it out through the door into the yard!
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