CORCRAIN AND THE FLEMINGS
Dead but Wouldn’t Lie down
The Second World War
I loved to hear my granda telling the following story. He was at a wake one time and the corpse was a man who had a hump on his back. It used to be the custom for a corpse to be laid out on the bed, but the man’s hump was so bad they couldn’t get him straightened out. In other words, as my granda said, ‘He was dead but he wouldn’t lie down!’ His family tied a rope around him some way or other, attaching the rope to two big iron weights, which they hid under the bed. But during the wake some bright spark cut the rope and the man shot up to a sitting position. The house wasn’t long in clearing!
There was another story he was fond of relating. There was a fellow he knew who was going to ask this girl to marry him. She was a very beautiful, well-dressed girl. But one day when the fellow was ready to go out with her, he noticed that although she looked as well as always there was a long thread hanging from the hem of her skirt. ‘Indeed, d’you know,’ the fellow said to himself, ‘I’ll not ask her to marry me a’tall! If she was all she puts up to be she would have noticed that thread.’ So, he didn’t marry her. He met her years later and was very glad he hadn’t, for she had turned into a dirty slut.
During the Second World War my granda was an Air-raid Warden. When he was on duty he wore a tin helmet and armbands. He was issued with a great heavy overcoat, which in winter we used to fling over the bed to keep us warm. There was a teacher at The Hart Memorial School – Mrs. White – who made these wee pictures. They were really old magazine cuttings pasted on to cardboard. She sold them to the pupils for maybe a halfpenny or a penny and the money went to the war effort.
One night during the war I wakened in the middle of the night to find our whole house awake and gathered in my granny and granda’s bedroom, which was at the back of the house. It was the night Jerry bombed Belfast. In the distance we could see the sky – all lit up with red flashes – as if it was on fire. And it roughly about 25 miles away – as far as the crow flies! I remember my mother wrapped a blanket round me to keep me warm and I sat on my grandparent’s bed watching with the others. Next morning I stood at our front door with my granny and mother, watching the refugees go past in their hundreds – in cars, the back of lorries, in carts and every way possible – the entire belongings they were left with done up in crude bundles. Some didn’t even have a bundle. They only had what they stood up in.
The school attendance officer and my granda were great friends. Mr. Richard Lyttle (or Dick Lyttle – as he was known) and his wife Lizzie, had a wee shop in Corcrain, in the Charles Street area. Mostly Mrs. Lyttle attended the shop, for Dick was usually busy going around the schools checking up on who had missed days. The pupils dreaded his visit. It was a nerve-racking time for anyone who had stayed away without good reason. Dick would pour over the roll-book, then call out the names of all those who had been absent for whatever length of time. He had this habit of pulling his glasses to the end of his nose and peering over them.
‘So, why were you not at school, such and such a day?’ he would ask.
‘Stand up when Mr. Lyttle is talking to you!’ the teacher would command.
‘Please sir, I was sick!’
‘You weren’t sick when I saw you running around Corcrain, playing cowboys and Indians!’
‘Please sir, I was better then.’
‘Sit down – and don’t let me catch you taking days off again! Do you know what happens when you don’t attend your school? Your father could go to jail! Only last week a boy I know had taken too many days off and his father got jail over the head of it! Any more days and the same thing could happen to your father! You take heed now!’
The one time everyone dreaded most was when Dick turned up at our school following Drumcree Church’s annual excursion. Or the ‘Church Trip’ as it was called! Nearly all the church trips took place on a Saturday, but Drumcree’s trip was always on a Thursday. This meant you were too tired to go to school next day. Those of us who went to Drumcree Church always had to account for ourselves every year. Dick never said a word about us taking the day off to go to the Trip. He was a Drumcree man himself! It was the day after that was the trouble.
‘It doesn’t take two days to go to the Trip!’ he would say. ‘So why weren’t you at your school the following day?’
‘Please sir, my mammy couldn’t get me up – I was too tired.’
‘Please sir, I wasn’t feeling well the next day.’
‘Not feeling well? That’s because you ate too much oul rubbish in Warrenpoint!’
‘Please sir, my mammy said she was tired too after the day out and didn’t feel like getting up early.’
Dick would peer over his glasses and warn, ‘Don’t let me catch you taking two days off next year – or you’ll know what’ll happen!’
But Dick’s bite was never as bad as his bark! In fact Dick Lyttle was a very good man, who gave generously to his church. He may have put the fear of God into anyone who stayed away from school without good reason, but if the reason was genuine – he never said a word. If he knew someone was genuinely sick or if there was something wrong in the family – a death for instance – you had his sympathy. I think those of us who lived in Corcrain were more afraid of his wife than him. If you had stayed away from school, for whatever reason, wild horses wouldn’t have dragged you into their shop. Mrs. Lyttle would have given you a good telling off and would have threatened to tell ‘Mr. Lyttle’ you weren’t at your school. Well dare anyone call him Dick to her face! But all in all they were good friends with the Fleming family and as I’ve said - especially with my granda.
After my granda retired, Dick would sometimes bring him round the country with him in his car, when he was going to check on pupils who had been absent from school for a long period. My granda said even before Dick knocked on the various houses, he would be able to quote word for word what the excuse would be. Farmers had a habit of keeping a son or daughter at home to help on the farm. They concocted all kinds of wild excuses, but Dick was never fooled. My granda enjoyed these drives around the country. A drive in a car in those days was a novelty.
Drumcree trips were a great day out, as were all the church trips. There was this man who attended Drumcree. His name was Hugh Lyttle – a far-out friend of Dick’s. He and his sister Gertie lived in a wee house beside Corcrain River and neither of them was, as they say, the full shilling. Hugh’s hands and face were always as black as coal, for he seldom washed. He had lovely white teeth. When you looked at him all you could see were these sparkling teeth smiling at you from a face black with dirt. At the trip all the Sunday school children and their parents used to gather in a church hall in Warrenpoint or Newcastle or wherever the trip happened to be – usually Warrenpoint! We were served with mugs of tea and a bag containing sandwiches and buns. Hugh used to hand out the mugs. They were usually covered in big grubby finger marks from his dirty black hands.
Nothing ever seemed to ‘turn’ my granda’s stomach! My mother told me how one time when she was young they were having herrings for their tea. My granda was always very fond of herrings. They had just sat down at the table when there was some kind of a rumpus outside their front door. I think she said a horse had bolted, overturning the cart it was pulling. Anyway, everyone rushed to see what had happened. When they went back into the house my granda’s plate was empty. The cat had pinched his herring and was under the table guzzling it. My granda went under the table after it, took it from the cat and ate what was left of it!
He used to waken through the night feeling hungry, as he had a tendency towards an ulcer, so would bring a couple of bread and butter sandwiches on a plate and leave them on the wee table beside the bed so he could have them when he wakened. Of course it never occurred to him to cover the sandwiches. One night he awoke and in the dark reached out for them. He was halfway through one when he bit on something which scrunched under his teeth. He put on the light and discovered an earwig had crawled between the slices of bread and he had bitten it in two.
My mother told me that one time my granda, for some reason or other, had to go to Belfast in the train. He was as he thought ‘all dressed up’ with a clean white handkerchief in his pocket and all! But halfway there, in a carriage full of passengers he went to blow his nose. He put his hand in his pocket for his handkerchief, took it out, shook it open and discovered that in his hurry to catch the train; instead of grabbing hold of a hanky he had taken hold of one of the children’s wee white shifts instead!
Before I finish telling about my granda I will recount one more amusing tale. We had a pear tree in the garden just the other side of out back-yard wall. It never bore any fruit, until one year when it produced a single pear. The pear could be seen above our yard wall. From the kitchen window my granda watched its progress from a tiny fruit to a big juicy looking full-grown pear. He kept telling us he would pull it once it was really ripe. But not until then! The day came when my granda announced he was going to pull the pear. I for one couldn’t wait to sample it. Out my granda went to the garden. But when he got there all that was hanging from the tree was half a pear! And these big teeth marks to show someone had eaten the other half! Freddy, who was always getting into mischief anyway, had climbed the tree the day before and with the pear still hanging on the branch had taken bites out of it. He was crafty enough not to touch the part facing our kitchen window, so my granda didn’t realize half of it was gone!
Ghosts and Lizzie Curry
Joshua Fleming, or Joss – as he was known, suffered from a terrible illness called ‘sleepy sickness’.
Joss worked in Walsh’s nursery, where nearly all his brothers worked at one time or another.
Apparently sleepy sickness is contacted from a certain type of fly, which somehow gets into the brain. At the time it was believed Joss contacted it while working with the plants in the nursery.
He was married to a girl called Mary Mullen, from ‘The Walk’ district in Portadown. They had one son called Sammy. At one stage in Sammy’s life he went to Africa to work. Something practically unheard of in those days! I remember him telling us that when he arrived there the first thing he was handed was a gun to protect himself with. Sammy had very dark hair and eyes. He said the black people he was working with in Africa nicknamed him ‘the little black one’!
Sammy was only a child when his father took sick. Joss developed so many problems that he soon became too much for Mary to handle. In those days there wasn’t the help there is now. So, in the end my granny and granda took Joss home again to live with them.
From photographs of her when she was young Mary was very beautiful. She had a gorgeous head of long dark hair. I remember her telling me she once had it cut short, but Joss didn’t like it, so she never had it cut again until after he died.
Joss used to be able to walk down to the river bridge in Corcrain where the men used to congregate for a yarn. But, it got he wasn’t able even for that small outing.
Joss’s body may have been affected by the sleepy sickness, but his brain certainly was not. If someone cracked a joke or something funny happened in the house, or if a comedian was on the wireless, we would hear Joss laughing. There was nothing he enjoyed better than friends dropping in; even he couldn’t communicate with them. You just knew by his smile and the look on his face that he was glad to see them.
When my mother was young, before Joss became ill, a strange thing occurred – something which she never forgot. The house they lived in at the time had a pigeon loft in the garden. My mother needed to go to the toilet, which was out the back. Only the ‘wee house’ as it was sometimes called was occupied, so she went under the pigeon loft. She said while she was there she saw Joss walking past and entering the house. My mother didn’t speak and neither did he. When she went indoors again, she asked, ‘Where’s Joss? I saw him going into the house.’ They all looked at her in surprise. Joss had not been in the house. He was out seeing Mary and didn’t come home till much later on. But my mother swore she had seen him. When Joss came in he said she couldn’t have, for he had been nowhere near their house. She told the tale to Gramma whose verdict was - when you see someone like that and they are not really there it is a sign they don’t have a long life ahead of them. My mother never told my granny or any of the family what Gramma said – not until long after Joss had died.
Joss died while in his early forties, when I was twelve years old.
An episode happened at Joss’ wake which I am sure if he had been alive he would have had a good laugh at. Lizzie Curry was a woman who lived in The Tunnel. Lizzie used to attend all the wakes in the country and was famous for staying until she had practically to be chased. Lizzie appeared at Joss’ wake and stayed on long after everyone else had left. The family didn’t like asking her to go, but were at their wit’s end to know how to get rid of her so they could get to their beds. Then somebody started telling ghost stories. Lizzie was all ears, listening to these ghost stories though clearly getting the wind up.
Eventually a member of the family suggested she should go home to her own house, as it was very dark to be walking from Corcrain to The Tunnel at that time of night. ‘You never knew what you might meet on the way,’ they said.
Lizzie got herself out of the chair she was sitting on and slowly made her way to the front door. The door was opened for her. It was the middle of the night and not a soul was about. ‘You’ll be all right, Lizzie,’ whichever one of the family who opened the door for her, said.
Lizzie made no reply, but looking scared to death, slowly walked from the front door and into the middle of the road. She positioned herself squarely in the centre of the road, looked left and right, then back over her shoulder. Then, as the family described it, took a buck leap and went tearing along the road in the direction of The Tunnel as if all the hounds in the country were after her!
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