We leaned our Raleigh racers against the window of the two bed roomed cottage, located on Main street. Madge approached the faded front door. ‘Tommy, it’s Madge and Gertrude,’ banging briskly on the door to make sure he could hear her. Tommy was a widower who lived on his own. He enjoyed his weekly visit from members of the Legion of Mary. It was unusual for him not be at home at eight pm. I peered through the cobwebbed window pane. I could not see him but again called out, ‘Tommy’…… ‘He’s not here’. I sighed. ‘Sure, we’ll wait a few minutes Gertrude, he can’t be gone too far,’ replied Madge.
I had already waited half an hour at Kelly’s corner for her but she did not show up so I decided to flew on my racer to her flat. Gertrude had forgotten about the visit. She admitted she just got out of bed after treating herself to an evening nap. I waited again to give her time to get dressed. ‘Time is Time’ my father’s repetitious phrase flashed into my mind. I wasn’t waiting any longer for Tommy. ‘I’m going home Madge,’ I announced. ‘O no you’re not, he’s coming behind you’. She smiled.
Tommy had taken advantage of the magnificent sunny May evening and was returning home after a short stroll. ‘How are ye girleens?’ he asked, smiling broadly as he approached them slowly due to a slight limp and advanced years. ‘Come on in,’ he added, turning the key in the door, leading them into his modest kitchen.
During our hourly visit, we usually offered him help with his household chores. He always insisted on making us a cup of tea while we revealed the latest news from around the market town. And during every visit, Tommy would always recall memories of his dear wife who had passed away a few years previously. On this visit, Madge took a long look at the Stanley range.
‘Tommy, I’m going to give the range a good cleaning,’ she stated. ‘Fair enough Madge,’ agreed Tommy.
‘Now what could I clean it with?’ she asked herself out loud. Tommy cleanings agents were minimal.
‘What about Quix washing up liquid?’ suggested Gertrude.
Madge suddenly spotted a lump of lard on Tommy’s oil clothed kitchen table. ‘This will do the trick,’ she said excitedly. Tommy suggested making us both a cup of tea as we began our cleaning duties.
‘Hold on until we are finished cleaning, Tommy. It won’t take too long,’ said Gertrude.
Madge dropped the square block of lard onto the top of the hot Stanley range and started to move it around with a knife that she stuck in the middle of it. The lard started to spit and bubble as it burst across the top of the range, taking on a life of its own. Suddenly, smoke started to ascend, higher and higher aiming towards an already grey ceiling. Like an infectious disease, it spread fast through the room. All three of us began to cough and cough.
‘O my god Madge, you’ll set the house on fire,’ raising my voice in panic. Darkness began to descend over the kitchen.
‘Don’t worry, it’s only smoke caused by the dirt and ashes on the range Gertrude. There will be no fire,’ she assured me. I had seen my mother use lard when she was making pastry but I never used it to clean a Stanley range or anything else for that matter.
‘Well, I never saw my mother use it to clean…’ Tommy interrupted me. ‘Will you go over and open the front door a Gra and I’ll open this widow beside me?’ ‘The smoke will be gone in no time,’ he said politely. I chased over to open the front door wide and then decided to dash out to the scullery to open the back door too to help the smoke disappear quickly.
Tommy was sitting at the kitchen table. This was his favourite spot in the cottage. The window located beside him, looked out onto the main street allowing him to watch the world go by. It was here he sat every day not only to have his meals but also say the rosary while looking up at the Sacred Heart picture which hung over the kitchen table.
I felt embarrassed and annoyed by the incident but said nothing as I did not want to upset poor Tommy and I did not want to spoil the close relationship I had with Madge. Madge now in her thirties and Tommy in his late seventies had a bit more life experience and wisdom and so I decided to accept that they knew best. I was just nineteen with not a care in the world, not even for the shorthand and typing exams which I was about to undertake a couple of weeks later.
After waiting awhile for the smoke to fly the doors and window, and for the dust and dirt to ‘lie down’ on every inch of the kitchen, Madge blurted out, ‘I’ll keep cleaning the Stanley Gertrude. It will look like span new by the time I’m finished with it,’ she said with pride.
‘Fair enough,’ I replied and began to think where or what would I start to clean first? There was no time to waste for the cleaning was going take much longer than usual.
‘Girls, would be like some music to listen to while ye work?’ Tommy suggested. ‘Not a bad idea,’ I answered, pouring boiling water into the rectangular red basin used for washing the delph. The battery-operated transistor sat on the old worn oil clothed kitchen table. ‘You can choose the station yourself Gertrude,’ offered Tommy.
Gertrude turned on the radio. It was set at Radio one. ‘We won’t get the Top ten hits on this station, Tommy,’ she joked.
‘I don’t think Tommy has any interest in the top ten Gertrude,’ declared Madge.
‘You’d be surprised,’ I answered, looking up to see her overstretching her arm to clean the ceiling with an old shirt as she stood on Tommy’s creaky fireside armchair. ‘Ah Madge, be careful,’ I said in a loud cry. ‘We don’t want any more incidents or accidents. Tie the shirt around the sweeping brush instead. You won’t have to do any stretching then,’ I advised her.
I continued to fiddle with the needle on the transistor, searching slowly for the popular pirate British radio station Radio Caroline until I found it.
‘Got myself a crying, walking, sleepin, walkin living doll.’
The chorus of the song Living Doll was playing. Cliff Richard’s song was a number one hit for a number of weeks now and one of my favourite songs to dance to in 1986. I turned up the volume and continued to sing along:
‘Got to do my best to please her just cause she’s a living doll…’
‘What do you think of this new number one hit Tommy?’ I asked him.
She held him steady. Gently, they moved around the kitchen trying to keep time to the music.
As she continued to sing the lyrics…
‘Take a look at her hair, it’s real, if you don’t believe what I say …’
‘We’ll be here ‘till midnight with the way your carrying on, Gertrude’ interrupted Madge.
‘Ah sure we’re only having a bit fun. Don’t worry, we’ll get the cleaning done,’ I assured her.
‘That’s true’ replied Madge moving to the rhythm of the music while dusting the old mahogany sideboard.
During a break from our cleaning, Tommy informed us over a cup tea and digestive biscuits that he could never forget that summer of 1959 for he and his late wife had celebrated their twenty fifth wedding anniversary that July. That was twenty-seven years ago and it was plain to see that she was still very much alive in his heart. Radio Caroline continued to hurl out the hits that evening as we continued the cleaning until eleven pm.
Waiting the hour for Madge and waiting for Tommy to arrive home was important, for it gave me the opportunity to give of my time, my friendship and care to someone in need. The evening had been eventful for us all. An evening full of enjoyment, excitement and entertainment for the three of us especially Tommy. It was an evening I would not forget. I had realized the importance of waiting.
(c) Evelyn Killeen McCrann