Olivia Robertson - Court Circular
Illustration "Carmel posed in her veil" by Olivia Robertson.
By Olivia Robertson
Published in “The Bell”, Vol. X, No. 5, August, 1945
St. Malachy's Court has no published Court Circular. Nevertheless if you imagine that you can escape the unrelenting scrutiny of Society in the slums of Dublin, you have come to the wrong place. Loneliness is of the suburbs. There, concealed by the monkey-puzzle tree, the laburnum and the laurel, the middle classes may behave as they choose. Not so in St. Malachy's. Hidden eyes will watch you as you zigzag home from the saloon-bar; they will note the van removing your three piece suite that you purchased on the instalment system; the Garda will be seen arriving with his summons: you can't even beat your own wife - they'll hear her through the partitions. However, this communal social life removes the two spectres of modern town life - boredom and loneliness. Your own problems are kept in true proportion by the ever obtruding lives of others, which offer an escape from selfish isolation. It is the habit of moralists to condemn gossips and scandal-mongers, yet these give the human ego an essential palliative; they bestow a sense of consequence. In the Court, if Mrs. Nolan announces that she is having her appendix out, she is assure of a gratifying distrubance in the life around her. She feels that her appendix matters.
In St. Malachy's unpublished Court Circular operations gain the victims most social prestige. The surgeon's knife bestows an accolade of macabre distinction; the scar is a peep-show for the rest of the patient's days, giving a vicarious thrill to the neighbours. You can only acquire a comparable glamour by dying, and having a very expensive funeral. Births are the most common events in the Court Circular but still have news value, especially if the mother is taken off in an ambulance. Babies arrive so frequently that I am reminded of a verse the children chant:
‘Policeman, policeman, don’t take me,’
I’ve got a wife and a family.’
‘How many children have you got?’
‘Twenty-four, and that’s the lot.’
The new babies are treated with abundant love; the boys pretend to none of that scorn for infants that the Public School class considers manly. Both boys and girls act as nurses from about the age of three and I have never seen them deliberately unkind, whatever the provocation, though they are frequently nonchalant. A case in point was Maimie Murphy’s new brother. Her little cousin first told me about it. He raced up to me, pushing a puppy in a soap-box.
‘Me Ant’s back from the Rotunda! The new baby has come to me Ant’s flat. There’s Maimie, skippin’ with it. It’s tew weeks ould.’
‘What!’ I swung round and stared at his cousin with horror. Two girls were turning a skipping-rope and singing a song in time with Maimie’s leaps. She was only nine years old but was showing considerable agility manipulating a voluminous rug that was draped around her. She had her back to me, but I could see something round bobbing up and down over her shoulder. It couldn’t be a baby. I rushed over. It was a baby.
‘Stop! Stop that skipping at once!’
‘Ah, why?’ Maimie skipped higher in order to show off, while the minute being that was anchored to her by the flapping rug wobbled more violently than ever.
‘The baby! You’re killing it!’
‘Sure he likes it - don’t you, Joseph?’ She jerked the tiny creature, who sneezed and went to sleep again. I was frightened of interfering, in case she tripped. Meanwhile the children calmly continued their skipping song:
‘He hugs her and he cuddles her and he puts her on his knee,
And he says to Maimie, “DON’T you love me?”
I loves you and you loves me
And we’ both be married in a year or three -’
‘Please stop, Maimie, because I want to see if your new baby is nice looking!’ This piece of cunning worked. Maimie obligingly stopped to show me her new toy. The infant had the weird look of great age and wisdom that is noticeable in the barely born. Hairless and wrinkled, he resembled one of Shaw’s Ancient or the latest incarnation of the Dalai Lama.
‘I loves him,’ declared Maimie, giving him a smacking kiss and pushing the comforter, that was dangling by soiled ribbon between his legs, into his mouth.
‘The noise in this playground is very bad for him,’ I announced, sounding to myself like a school mistress. I searched for words, while the children looked on with tolerant smiles.
‘There do be more noise in the flats,’ observed Maimie.
‘That skipping might make him ill, especially as he is only a fortnight old,’ I continued.
‘It’s not a bit of skipping as makes the babies ill,’ said Maimie. ‘In our family there was twelve of us and four was took. It wasn’t the skipping and the playing killed them. The Doctor said it was the consumption.’
‘Why don’t you take him home to bed?’
‘I can’t. The flat’s locked. Me mammy has to do the shopping. I has three other young ones to mind. When the playground’s not open we has to sit in the street.’
‘Can’t you put the baby in the pram?’
Maimie brightened up. ‘Here, Frankie!’ Her cousin ran up, still pushing his soap-box. Maimie emptied out the puppy and put the baby in along with the rug.
‘Run off now,’ she said, pushing him. ‘The lady says you’re to mind Joseph!’ Before I could interfere the little boy seized the box handles and leaped forward.
‘Hey, Paddy, I’ll race yuh!’ Another boy appeared suddenly, sliding uncertainly on one broken roller-skate. The two of them fled from the playground and through the Court archway leading to the road; I could hear the scrape of the roller-skate and the rumble of the box grow fainter, until they were submerged by the roar of the traffic. Maimie slipped her hand reassuringly into mine.
‘Don’t be worrying about the babby,’ she said kindly. ‘He’s asleep.’
Having been born, a Court child creates its next stir on the occasion of its First Communion. The mothers vie with each other in decking their small girls in satin and lace, with pastel colored overcoats, white gloves and bags and new shoes. This finery means a great deal to the children, who for the first time are dressed, not in second-hand clothes, but in something new from head to foot. The older girls are a melancholy reminder of the transient glory of this spring-time blossoming. They play in their old Communion frocks which they have outgrown, a caricature of their juniors. I can visualise one particular big, bouncing girl with a podgy face, who ran around in her old Communion dress that was like a splitting grey sausage skin over her growing body, the sleeves strained below her elbows, the waist bursting beneath her armpits and lace, bows and embroidery hanging filthy and limp. It was as if a woman were to scrub the floor in her bedraggled wedding-gown.
The Communion frock I shall never forget belonged to young Breda Royce. One spring morning she tripped into the playground in all her grandeur of lace veil, organdie frock and new pink coat. She pirouetted around, above herself with excitement, followed by an admiring throng of children. I warned her against having a swing in case she should damage her clothes, but she took notice. The consequence of disobedience was as swift as even a Victorian author of moral tales could wish. She ran towards a swing which was already in motion, was struck on the forehead, and fell on the ground pouring with blood. The crowd of children around the hysterical child was so dense that I had difficulty in pushing my way through. I heard such comments as --- ‘Oh, Janie, look a the blood!’
‘Let me see, I’m her cousin’ --- ‘She’s dead’ --- ‘She is’ent’ --- ‘here’s the lady.’ --- ‘I’m comin’ too, I’m her sister’ --- I led Breda to the first-aid room and had to keep the other children out by force. She was only slightly hurt, with a bruise and a small cut, but her yells were terrific. Her playmates were appreciating the whole scene from the window ledge, their noses blurred white against the glass. I bandaged the cut and tried to soothe the child. She was inconsolable - her gorgeous Communion dress was spoiled, she informed me between loud sobs; she wouldn’t be let go to the school party that afternoon - she looked a show with the bandage. Finally she crept home weeping. I reflected that the incident would have a psychologically terrifying effect on her, and that she would try to forget what should have been a very happy day. Childhood griefs were, I had been taught, very deep and affected their subconscious minds. Next t day I turned up at the Court still thinking of the misfortunate Breda. I found her trailing her bandage in the dust, displaying her cut to a crowd.
‘I was roarin’ and yellin,’ she was announcing proudly. ‘The woman said she’d never heard such roars. Me mammy near lost her life watchin’ from the winder and me Antie fainted. There was ructions in the flats. Me Communion clothes is rooned and they cost three pound.’ She beamed at her audience and conducted them to a trail of blood drops, black stains on the asphalt, that ran from the swings to the shelter. She pointed. The listeners gaped at the ground, mouths open.
‘All that come out of me …’
The morbid interest the children take in accidents reaches a climax when it comes to funerals. Funerals are easily the most attended of Court functions, and the great thrill for a child is to join the cortège in a cab. The first time I watched a funeral procession in the Court was after the death of little Bridie Feenan’s Grandad.
‘Me Grandad’s goin’ to be burried on Tuesda’. You’ll watch out for me in a cab, won’t you, Miss Robertson? I’ll be waving’ at you so’s you’ll see me.’ I assured Bridie that there would be no need to wave, that I would look out for her. Tuesday arrived and sure enough the funeral procession made its impressive entry into the Court, headed y the empty hearse, which was drawn by fine, glossy-coated black horses decked with sable plumes; a long trail of cabs followed, black horses first, chestnuts at the end. As the procession coiled its way round the Court every inhabitant of the place turned out to watch; the balconies were thronged. I felt conspicuous as the playground was in the middle of the square of flats; I looked as solemn as I could. While the hearse was being filled I locked the playground fate, to prevent the children from swarming out to get a better view. It was with relief that I saw the procession start again and make for the archway leading to the street. It was at this point that I noticed little Bridie. Indeed it would have been hard to miss her for she had poked her head out of the cab window and was waving enthusiastically. Aware of the watching crowds, I felt it would look irreverent to wave back, or even to smile, so I gave a subdued nod. She was wearing a black ‘pyxie’ hood as mourning and was grinning from ear to ear. At last he procession reached the archway; I was glad to see the last of it was I felt the spectacle to be unsuitable for children. They made me feel artificial with my composed gravity while they hopped around happily, commenting on the number of wreaths and mourners and noting that Bridie’s cab had only a brown horse. Just as I was about to unlock the playground fate I thought I heard the horse’s hooves sound louder, instead of diminishing which I was expecting. Certainly they were becoming louder and louder. The hearse and its attendant tail had wheeled round and the whole procession was making a second round of the Court. The children rushed to the railings and peered through. I gazed fascinated.
‘You watch,’ an infant told me as he clambered onto a seat as grand-stand. ‘When they pass the dead man’s flat --- there with the blinds down, number 93 --- they’ll all of them go slow.’ He stared with rapt attention. He was right; outside number 93, where the blinds were drawn, the whole procession slowed to an adagio. Past it, the horses were urged into their majestic prance. Birdie was swept by, smiling and waving at us with the gracious air of royalty. This time I ignored her. Soon it was all over. They had gone. But no! It couldn’t be. I was imagining it. I shut my eyes.
‘They’re goin’ round again!’ the children shouted. ‘I just can’t bear it,’ I thought, desperately looking the other way while I heard the horses trotting nearer. They were slowing down. I looked round. The cortège had once more reached Bridie’s Grandad’s flat. The child was still waving. I abandoned my reverent sobriety and smiled and waved as cheerfully as the rest.
Spelling and paragraph breaks are presented here as they appeared when published in the “The Bell”, August, 1945. The illustration is from the novel "St. Malachy's Court" written and illustrated by Olivia Robertson, published in 1946 by Peter Davies Ltd., in Kingswood, Surrey, UK and in 1947 by Odyssey Press in New York, USA.