CORCRAIN AND THE FLEMINGS
Alex the Artist
Knitting and Music
The House in Edenderry
The youngest of the Fleming family was my Uncle Alex. Alex was married to Christina Sloan, known to everyone as Teenie.
Alex was fond of cycling and some Sundays I used to get my bike out and together we would cycle all round the country roads. What sticks out most in my mind are the times we cycled round by Gilford and home by Tandragee. It was a favourite route. We used to always stop off for a rest at this wee café in Tandragee. Alex would order us two plain ices. It was a great treat to be sitting in a café on a Sunday afternoon, enjoying a dish of ice cream. In those days, it was a real novelty!
Like Bob, Alex loved flowers and growing things, but he was also a great artist. He loved drawing and painting. He was very good at it too! My father used to say that when Alex started work in Walsh’s nursery he was taught how to look after the plants, but no one taught him to be an artist. That was a gift he was born with. When I was a child I remember me sitting beside him, he with his drawing book and me with mine, while he taught me to draw. ‘Now, you do the same as me,’ he would say. He would maybe start drawing a face. I would struggle to copy what he did, line for line.
First of all he would draw an outline of the face. Then he would add eyes, ears, mouth, etc.
‘Mind you keep the ears in the right line with the eyes,’ he would instruct me. ‘No, no! Not like that! Look! Watch me!’ And so we would keep on, till we had both completed our drawings. Of course Alex’s was always far, far better than mine! My efforts were nothing compared to his.
Although most of his paintings were Eskimo, Indian or Mexican children, he once did a dog’s head, which he copied from a cigarette card. He gave this painting to my mother, who later passed it on to me. It is my favourite. But the best painting to my mind, which Alex ever did, was a copy of The Last Supper, which he copied to perfection.
Alex learned to drive quite late in life. My father had never learned to drive, but he had a licence from the days when you could just apply for one and get it without having to pass a test. He always kept it renewed, with the result, when Alex was learning he was able to sit beside him as a qualified driver. It was all quite legal. Even though he hadn’t passed his test, Alex could drive anywhere – as long as he had a ‘fully fledged’ driver with him, even that driver couldn’t drive at all! But he didn’t have a very good sense of direction. He loved to take Teenie and my mother and father out for a run on Sundays – usually to the seaside. Alex would say, ‘I think this is the road we need to take to such and such a place.’
Teenie would pipe up from the back seat, ‘That’s not the road a’tall! You have gone past where we should have turned in!’
‘Blathers, woman!’ Alex would respond, while carrying on along what he thought was the right road.
Nine times out of ten he always had to turn back and go the way Teenie said. Then he would cod Teenie, saying, ‘Sure I knew the way all along – I was just seeing if you knew it!’
He was very fond of apple tart. One day when he called at our house my mother was only after taking a tart she had made, from the oven. She made a drop of tea and her and my father had a slice of tart each. Alex ate the rest! They used to keep him going about eating the whole tart. Alex’s reply was, ‘Well, it was a lovely tart!’
To the day he died, he hated the feel of velvet. My mother said, when he was a child my granny bought him this lovely wee velvet suit. But Alex hated it. He was made to wear it on Sundays. My granny would say to him, ‘Go and get your good suit till I put it on.’ Alex would get hold of the tongs, lift the suit with them and bring it to her that way. Anything rather than handle the velvet!
The first dog I ever owned came from people in the country who had these black and white rough-haired collie pups for sale. Alex brought my mother and father and me out to have a look at the pups and I came away with one which my father and mother bought for me. We brought the pup home and set it down in our living room. The big question was – what was I going to call it? I went over all the names of the day – and nothing seemed right. My father was playing with the pup and accidentally dropped ash from his cigarette on its head. I brushed away the ash, saying, ‘Look at that – he’s all dusty!’
‘There you are,’ Alex said. ‘You’ve got your name for him. Call him Dusty.’ And Dusty he was until he died about three years later.
Alex was very kind and obliging, and was always willing to run those of us who had no car anywhere we wanted to go – or even just for an outing when the weather was good. Alex had many talents up his sleeve besides his painting. One of them was – knitting! Only I don’t think I would have learned about that talent if it hadn’t been for my mother.
While at Drumgoose School the mistress taught them all how to knit – not only the girls, but the boys as well. She put up a prize for the best knitter – and it wasn’t a girl who won – but Alex! That piece of information was a treasure – something to keep him going about. I don’t think I believed he could really knit until one day I was knitting and said to him, ‘Go on – show us how well you can do it!’ I passed over my knitting. He took the needles and wool from me and to my surprise knit a couple of rows – every bit as well as I could. And that must have been about thirty-five years after he had won the prize!
My granny used to worry about him when he was a toddler – afraid he wasn’t as strong as he should be. I suppose because he was the youngest – she was inclined to protect him more. But the doctor said to her, ‘Let him out the back. Give him a big spoon and let him dig in the muck and dirt with it!’ So my granny took the doctor at his word and did just that and Alex grew up to be as healthy and strong as the rest!
Alex was a wee bit musical. I say a wee bit - for none of the Flemings, to my knowledge, were what you would call – very musical! Though having said that – I recently learned that at one time Bob was a member of Corcrain Flute Band. Alex played the mandolin and became quite good at it. It was something else he taught himself to do. He also played the tin whistle, but hardly ever played in front of people. However, he once attended a dinner run by his bowling club and played a couple of tunes on the whistle for the company’s entertainment. As he put it – he must have been ‘well away’ to have plucked up the courage, for really my uncle Alex was a rather shy man. He was shy, yet had the same trait as all the Flemings - he would come out with wisecracks when no one was thinking. I saw our house at times, crowded with visitors, Alex sitting very quietly without a word to say – then out of the blue he would make a joke about something someone had said and the whole place would be in stitches.
He was very fond of his game of bowls. He played for the club belonging to Seagoe Church and used to play in quite a lot of away matches. He told me that when they played against the patients in Armagh Mental Hospital they always let them win. I wish I had asked him was he sure about that? Maybe they won because they were the best team! He would have a good laugh today if he knew I played bowls. He used to be always at me to join his club. I would say, ‘What do you think I am? That’s a game for old people!’
Alex was very good at bowling. Their house was full of trophies which he had won.
Teenie’s parents lived in a house in Edenderry. My mother and I visited them often, but as a child if I was left alone at all in that house I became scared to death. I don’t know what it was about it. Teenie’s sister May and I used to play in the attic, but if she went downstairs for something I trembled with fear till she came back. You had to go through a dark old shed at the back of the house to get to their toilet. I used to shake in my shoes every time I had to go. I thought it was only me and indeed as I was so young at the time I didn’t mention my fears to anyone in case they laughed at me. But then I began to hear tales from Alex how when he and Teenie lived there when they first married, he wakened one night to find someone standing at the foot of his bed. He said when he sat up they disappeared. He also said he was afraid to look at their face in case he recognized them. Then I discovered that when May started going to dances, if she arrived home when the rest were in bed she would sleep on the sofa rather than go upstairs to her bedroom. She was too afraid to go up the stairs on her own! I know I was even scared to walk past the curtain at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the attic! Years later I learned that a man had hung himself in that same house.
Alex was a real tease when it came to cats. I can’t remember our house when we didn’t own a cat, and Alex used to torment the life out of them! When he worked in Walsh’s nursery and we lived in Corcrain, like Bob he used to call regularly on his way to and from work. He went to his work on his bicycle and wore these thick black gloves to keep his hands warm. There was one cat in particular which we had, called Shandy. When Shandy was a kitten, Alex used to play with it with his gloves on. It would lie on its back with its four paws up in the air and Alex would scratch its belly with his gloved hand, knowing if it clawed him it wouldn’t do him any harm. The kitten used to go frantic, tearing at his hand and trying to bite him. That cat – not surprisingly – grew to be a really wicked animal. It thought nothing of taking a lump out of you! It used to run up my mothers back when she was standing at the sink washing the dishes and try to bite her. My mother was actually afraid of it. I saw me stroking it, but if you hesitated for a second and it wanted more, it stuck either its teeth or its claws in you. Of course we blamed its behaviour on Alex – whether he was to blame or not!
One time my father got hold of some poteen. Teenie and her mother, Mrs. Sloan, were visiting our house. Teenie had a bad cold, so my father made her up a drink of poteen with hot water and sugar added, which he thought would help her. Whether it cured her cold or not, I don’t know. But next day Alex called at our house and wanted to know what we had given Teenie. Apparently when she was making the tea she went to set the jug of milk on the table, but missed the table by about a foot and set it on the floor instead!
He was – a good-lookin’ fella – my uncle Alex - and a good fella. It was heart-breaking for all the family when he died from cancer while in his early fifties. But all my life they have been with me – the entire Fleming family – whether dead or alive. You know, even as I write these closing words, I see my mother’s face – and there’s a lump in my throat.
She is looking over my shoulder. ‘Is that our ones you’re writing about?’ she asks.
And I reply, using words my granda would have used, ‘Aye, indeed! Just so…’
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