John B Keane: Children the means of getting back at the neighbours

MANY years ago there lived in our community a woman who liked to get her own back on the neighbours by teaching manners to their children whenever an opportunity presented itself.

MANY years ago there lived in our community a woman who liked to get her own back on the neighbours by teaching manners to their children whenever an opportunity presented itself.

Incidentally, the fact that I so often refer to the chief characteristics and to the folk who inhabit our community does not mean that it is different in any way from any other community.

It is just that it is the terrain which is most familiar to me and because of the fact that asses and mules, stronger animals than I, have gone bogging when in strange territory I think it all the more important that I should stay where I belong.

But let us forge ahead and enlighten the dear student. As I said, this woman liked to teach manners to the children of the neighbourhood.

To teach them manners, however, she had first to capture them. It was not enough to ask them to take on run-of-the-mill errands.

They knew that she was anything but a pleasant character and if she wanted to get one of them into the house the contract would have to be unusual and attractive.

One day she induced a friend of mine to climb up to her chimney where it was obvious that a crow had built himself a temporary dwelling in the foolish hope that winter would never come and that he would be safe and secure in his chimney stronghold all the year round.

But for the possibility of the brush with the crow, my friend would never have entered the house. As things turned out, he succeeded in evicting the unfortunate bird although it took quite a long while and on two occasions he very nearly fell from the chimney.

When he finally descended he was given soap and water with which he was expected to remove all traces of the combat.

He performed this unpleasant task and then stood with his hands behind his back waiting for his payment. There was none forthcoming, at least there was none of the financial kind. She said to him instead, “I have something nice for you.”

She then told him to be seated at the head of the table. He was much too afraid of her to do otherwise. In front of him she placed half a grapefruit.

“You can start off with that,” she said. She stood by with her hands folded waiting for him to begin.

“Ma’am,” he said, “I can’t eat it.”

She drew in her breath sharply as if it was just what she expected.

“You mean,” she laughed, “you don’t know how to eat it.”

To this my friend had no answer. He just sat there with his head down and his eyes averted from the woman.

She stood gloating nearby shaking her head now and then at the enormity of the boy’s backwardness.

These were her moments of glory and she savoured them to the fullest. After all it might be weeks before she came into possession of another boy.

My turn to dine in her kitchen came sooner than I expected. Some member of my family received good marks in an exam and the community was proud of the fact. Not so our friend.

She called me one day while I was playing in the street. I was reluctant to answer but she called again more imperiously and I approached her more cautiously.

“Will you do a job for me?” she asked.

“What kind of a job?” I asked suspiciously.

“Tis nothing much,” she replied, “only to paint a few chairs.”

At home I was never allowed near either a paint brush or a pot of paint. This was too good an opportunity to be missed. She led me to a shed in the back where two chairs awaited me. I fell to work with a will. In an hour or so I had finished.

“Come in,” she said, “I have you dinner ready.”

This is what I feared.

“They’ll be expecting me home,” I told her.

“Tis on the table,” she said. She made me sit at the table facing a plate of fish the likes of which I had never seen before. Up to that the only sea fish I had eaten were mackerel and herrings. I was taking no chances. I refused to touch it. With great satisfaction, she folded her arms.

“I suppose,” she said, “that’s the kind of fish you does have at home.”

“Oh yes,” I lied, “the exact same.” When I refused to eat she smirked. I know now that the fish was plaice. She stood for several minutes gloating and then she told me to go home.

Maybe we had boasted too much about the good marks. It’s a known fact that there is nothing but sympathy for those who get bad marks.