“They took the poor child away in the red blanket. God bless the mite….and his mother, she wailed like a banshee”, chattered Mrs McCrea. She was standing at the corner of the little avenue in her flowing white nightdress, long snow white hair blowing in the biting December wind. “Took the little thing away…wrapped him in the red blanket they did…”, her voice trailed off.
Both hands gripping the garden railing for support, her swollen knuckles as white as her hair, head nodding, she mumbled “Little mite…and his mother…his poor mother…”
Mrs McCrea was a neighbour. She lived in the terraced house directly opposite to the house I lived in. I had known her all my life, a full ten years. She had always been an old woman and I knew she had been unwell recently. I knew that because I had heard my mother tell my father one evening when he came home from work. “Tommy”, she said in a half whisper, “Old Mrs McCrea was really bad today. I think she really is sick this time.”
“What happened?” my father asked, lowering his voice as he became aware of me standing at the fire watching both of them intently. I didn’t hear the rest of the conversation but I knew that something was really wrong with Mrs McCrea. And now this.
I wasn’t really sure what I should do for the best – run back to the house for mother – or try to get Mrs McCrea back into her own house. Placing my hand over the back of her hand and feeling its icy coldness I didn’t hesitate. Placing my other hand on the old woman’s shoulder I led her back towards her own house. The hall door was wide open and in the gloom of the living room I could see the glow of a small fire in the hearth. I helped Mrs McCrea into the old wooden rocking chair and assuring her I would be back. I ran out the hall door and across the short distance to my own house. Hammering hard on the door knocker I shouted for my mother.
Undoing the latch and looking pale and worried my mother appeared at the door. Quickly taking in my condition and realising I wasn’t trailing a broken leg or pouring with blood she demanded to know what in God’s name I thought I was at.“Ma, it’s Mrs McCrea. There’s something wrong. I think she’s gone mad Ma!”
Without a word my mother tore down our path and across to Mrs McCrea’s with me trailing behind her. When I entered the house my mother had her arms wrapped around Mrs McCrea’s shoulders and the old woman sobbed loudly. My mother looked up and seeing me standing there told me to stop standing and staring around me and to put the kettle on and make a pot of tea.
“The poor child…the poor child”, Mrs McCrea sobbed. “They took him away in the red blanket you know.”
Peering from the gloom of the kitchen I saw my mother passing her hand over and over again down the length of the old woman’s white hair trying to calm her. I brought the teapot to the fire and placed it on the hearth. Returning again from the kitchen I brought a cup and a half full bottle of milk and gave them to my mother. She took them and in a tone sharper than usual ordered me back to our house.
Grudgingly I did as I was told. Pulling our front door behind me and sitting myself at the kitchen table I replayed in my head all that had happened that morning.After what seemed like an age I heard a knock at the front door and when I opened it my mother swept past me and went straight into the kitchen. Entering the kitchen I saw her sitting at the table.
“You did a good job this morning Martin,” she said without looking up. “What’s wrong with Mrs McCrea Ma? I asked, “Is she gone mad? “No Martin, she’s not gone mad. No. She’s just confused. “She was going on about a baby Ma, and a red blanket. She kept saying that Ma.”
My mother took a deep breath and began, “A long time ago, before…before you were born Martin, a lot of children got very sick in Dublin. They had the diphtheria…a horrible sickness. When the child was very sick the ambulance would call and the child would be taken from the house wrapped in a red blanket and brought to the Fever Hospital in Cork Street.” As quickly as she had begun my mother stopped and looked down at the table. I wasn’t sure if my mother was going to tell me any more so I pushed her again.
“And the mother, Mrs McCrea said the mother was bawling Ma. Did she go in the ambulance too?” After a long silence my mother turned her head and looked me straight in the eye. Her own eyes had filled up and I nudged a little closer to her on the kitchen bench. “No Martin… she didn’t. No visitors were allowed in the Fever Hospital. Mothers were given a number by the ambulance men.” My mother closed her eyes and swallowing hard she continued, “They…the mothers… could buy the paper each morning and check their child’s number and see how they were doing. It was a terrible time, a really terrible time.”
My face reddening I could feel the anger rising in me and standing up at the bench I blurted out, “That’s not fair Ma. Taking kids away from their Ma’s like that. That’s just not fair!”
“I know… I know”, my mother sighed sadly. “They were awful times…awful Martin.
“And the kid Mrs McCrea was talking about? Did she know him? Did he come back safe Ma?
My mother took my hand in hers and squeezed it gently. “Oh yes she knew him well. And no Martin, no. He didn’t come home. A lot of the children never came home.”
My mother, standing up and wrapping me tightly to her, patted my back gently and spoke softly into my head of curls – “And poor Mrs McCrea, Martin, poor Mrs McCrea. He was the only child she ever had.”