From Monday to Thursday we sang to break the monotony; on Friday we sang to celebrate. In the four years I had worked at the Queensbrook Spinning Mill in County Armagh in the North of Ireland the singers were mute on only three occasions—the day Bridie McCardle’s child was buried; the day Lizzie Grant caught her hair between the rollers of her spinning frame and was carried out on a stretcher; and the day after England declared war on Germany.
On this particular Friday in late March of 1941 we sang as usual to celebrate the upcoming two days of freedom from the mill. I stood barefoot, just as I had every weekday since I was a fourteen-year-old doffer, the water from the condensing steam swishing around my ankles, and forced a hank of flax through a trough of hot water to soften it. As I guided the flax down through the eye of the flyer and onto the yarn bobbin we finished up “My Lovely Rose of Clare” and paused for breath. My friend, Patsy Mallon, called out to a young lad who stood in the aisle near her frame.
“Would you ever come over here and piece me threads together, Danny? There’s a good lad.”
I looked up, wiping the sweat from my forehead with the back of my hand. Patsy was a big, bold girl with a large bosom and a salty tongue. She scared the wits out of young part-timers like Danny who went to school in the mornings and worked in the mill in the afternoons. Patsy would lean over them, pressing her breasts against them as they worked to tie the threads or replace the empty bobbins on her machine. I shot a glance at my other friend, Kathleen Doyle, who worked two spinning frames at the stand next to mine. Kathleen’s face reddened as much as Danny’s had done and she bowed her head. Kathleen was the most innocent girl on the floor.
The late March day was drawing in. Soon darkness would sift through the grimy windows, which were set so high up on the walls you couldn’t see out of them. I looked over the enormous room with its dim light and orderly rows of wet spinning frames extending the length of it, separated by narrow aisles called passes. I felt small in here, dwarfed by the room’s size and timid in the face of the rows of bobbins that grinned like misshapen teeth and spat and hissed like devils. I sighed. At least it was Friday. I would have two days off before I had to return to this cave.
Just as the Friday afternoon singing resumed—a rough chorus of spinners and doffers murdering the gentle, plaintive notes of “The Croppy Boy”—the doffing mistress, Miss Galway, marched down the middle aisle between the rows of spinning frames and blew her whistle louder than a banshee’s scream. Miss Galway was an ancient woman—some said she’d been there as long as the mill itself—but she still had a fine set of lungs. Every time she blew her whistle to get the attention of the young part-timers we all winced. Today she blew it longer and louder than usual and we knew something was up. Without a word we all pulled the handles on the side of our frames and our machines shuddered and fell silent.
“Ladies, we have a visitor today. Mrs. McAteer wishes to make an announcement of some importance,” I said.
We all turned towards the door as Mrs. Hannah McAteer entered on cue. She was a tall, grim woman with a long, narrow face and black hair flecked with gray. She was the widowed sister of Mr. Carlson who owned the mill, and the mother of Mary McAteer who worked in the mill office. Patsy said the craic was that Hannah, a Quaker, had married a Catholic farmer who’d been killed in the First World War and left her penniless. She and her daughter were at the mercy of her brother, Patsy said, and that was why she always looked as if she’d just smelled shite.
“Good afternoon,” Mrs. McAteer began, looking around as if she indeed smelled something bad. Well, who could blame her for that? The smell of oil and grease and sweat in the room would choke a horse.
“I have some very good news for you.”
We left our machines and edged closer to her.
“I assume you have all heard of the Linen Queen competition that takes place every year at a linen mill in Northern Ireland. Well, this year it is Queensbrook’s turn.”
She attempted a smile as a cheer went up from the spinners. She raised her hand for silence.
“Now, this is a very important honor for us here in Queensbrook. Mr. Carlson has asked me to head the committee to choose those girls lucky enough to be asked to enter the competition. I shall take this responsibility very seriously in order that Queensbrook may stand the best chance of winning. Six girls from Queensbrook will be given the chance to enter. That’s four more than usually allowed, since we are the host mill. To be fair we will choose three from the weaving shed and three from the spinning mill.”
Kathleen and Patsy stood on either side of me, each one clutching my arm.
“Of course you must understand that the Linen Queen competition is not merely a beauty competition.”
“Can you believe this, Sheila?” whispered Kathleen.
Was Mrs. McAteer looking directly at me, or was I imagining things?
“A girl’s fitness to represent the mill—good attendance, solid work habits, a respectable family, and, above all, good character—will be considered above looks. And of course she must be between eighteen and twenty-one years of age.”
This time I was sure she glared at me when she spoke of character. True I had mocked her daughter, Mary, more than once and Mary had caught me at it. Well, Mary had deserved it. She’d called me names to my face and accused me of being loose with boys. How could I help it if the young eejits followed me out of the mill every day calling foolish oul’ blather after me? It was Patsy who asked for that kind of thing, not me. But I was sure Mary had told her ma all about it. I hadn’t cared until now. As if she read my thoughts, I turned to see Mary, a plump girl with black hair, standing in the doorway taking everything in.
“The competition will take place on Saturday night, April twelfth.”
Mary’s ma continued speaking to the hushed crowd. “The entrants will be announced one week from today, which will give the lucky girls a fortnight to prepare. Frocks will have to be festive, but modest. Those chosen will be given a list of rules. Good luck to all of you.”
A festive frock, I thought. How in the name of God would I ever afford such a thing? The earlier flutter in my heart turned heavy.
Mrs. McAteer swung around and walked towards the door. No one moved. Then as if she’d suddenly had an afterthought she stopped and turned. “Oh, and the prize money this year is two hundred pounds.”
A gasp went through the room.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, that’s a fortune of money,” shouted Patsy. “I could move out on my own, and I could buy as much finery as I liked, and I wouldn’t have to give that tight-fisted bastard another penny.”
Patsy was talking about her da, who took all her money off her and had been beating the daylights out of her since she was a child.
“It would be like a miracle,” Kathleen whispered. “Think what my ma could do with the likes of that?”
Kathleen was the oldest of ten children. Her da was disabled and her ma had taken the consumption after years working in the weaving shed. The family depended on Kathleen’s wages.
I said nothing. Thoughts collided in my brain. If it was based on looks I knew I’d stand a fair chance. And I hadn’t missed a day’s work since I started at the mill. I’d even fought off the mill fever that most youngsters suffered from when they first started. I’d kept going in those first few weeks even though I was hardly fit to stand.
My attitude could be better I knew, but it was hard to smile all the time when you hated the mill as much as I did. And I had turned eighteen since the previous competition had been held in Lisburn and so now I could qualify for the first time. As for character—well, I realized that was in Mrs. McAteer’s hands. Would she hold me back on account of the gossip that surrounded me?
A twinge of guilt crept over me when I thought of Patsy and Kathleen. We’d been friends since our schooldays and to tell the truth they were the only friends I had in the mill. They each deserved to win the prize. What if I was picked to enter and they weren’t? I pushed the thought aside.
As we left the mill that night, all the talk was about the competition. I’d never witnessed such excitement. Even the older women who would have no chance of being picked encouraged the young ones. They were all delighted for us. I couldn’t wait to talk to Ma.
I said good-bye to Patsy and Kathleen at the tram station. They both lived out in the country and came and went every day on the electric tram that the mill had laid on for workers from outlying towns. I lived in the mill village itself and had only a short walk to my house on Charlemont Square, one of two squares in the village with identical houses built around a green, all of them occupied by mill workers and their families. Well it wasn’t my house, exactly. It was the house where my ma and I lodged with my father’s sister, Kate, and her husband Kevin. We had lived there since the time my da left on his boat when I was ten years old and never came back. Aunt Kate had taken us in, but she never let us forget her charity. Kevin was a big, burly customer with a bad temper. I stayed away from him as much as I could, particularly when he was on the drink.
My ma and I slept in the granny room at the back of the scullery in an old iron frame bed covered with flour sacks. It wouldn’t have been so bad if it hadn’t been for the fact that there was a perfectly good bedroom up the stairs that had been standing empty for years. It had belonged to Kate and Kevin’s only child, Donal, who had left home five years ago when he was seventeen and had not been seen since. I was at school when it happened, but according to the neighbors, when he left he had said he was never coming back. He’d fought with his parents for years and was always saying he couldn’t wait to get away from them. I completely understood his need to escape. But Kate refused to believe he was gone for good and so she kept his room like a shrine—his clothes clean and pressed and hanging in the wardrobe, his copy books laid out on the small desk, his bed made up every week with fresh linen sheets. It was comical and eerie at the same time.
I slowed my step as I neared the house. Doubt began to taint my earlier excitement. Could I dare to hope that I’d even be picked to enter, let alone win? Maybe Ma would be in one of her good moods and would encourage me the way the other women in the spinning mill had done—but I was no sooner in the door when I realized it was a foolish hope. Ma was in one of her desperate bad moods. I could tell by the fact that she still wore her stained work apron and hadn’t bothered to comb her hair. Ever since I was a child I never knew which Ma I was going to find when I walked into the house. There were days when she sang like a lark, all smiles and kisses. And there were days like this when she looked like an old woman with the life drained out of her.
“Don’t go getting any ideas in your head!” she began. “There’s girls all over the country better looking than you are, miss,” she said. “And we’ve no money for fancy frocks and all the rest of it.”
“Don’t start, Ma,” I said wearily. “I haven’t even been picked yet.”
“And you won’t be!”
Ma worked in the weaving shed as a cloth passer, where she checked the woven cloth for faults. It was a good job, but a hard one. Most of the weavers hated her because she was so critical. It didn’t seem to bother Ma. She was only forty years old, but sometimes she looked twice her age, as she did now. I felt a rush of sympathy for her. She’d had a hard time of it since my da had left. And it was no easy matter for her living in another woman’s house and having to slave at the mill like the rest of us. But I shook the feeling off as quickly as it came. None of this was my fault. Why should I have to suffer as well?
Mammy’s voice was sharp. It frightened me. I didn’t want her to be mad at my Da.
“But we’re supposed to be celebrating, Ma,” I whined.
Ma sat in the armchair beside the fire.
“I know what you’re thinking, miss,” she went on, her voice ragged from coughing and cigarettes. “You’ll win this competition and then you’ll be too good for the rest of us. You’ll forget where you came from. And you’ll go off gallivanting and forget about your duty to me. And me not a well woman.”
Ma always added the last part to nail my guilt securely in place. I sighed.
“I don’t want to talk about it, Ma.”
I tried to push past her towards the scullery, but she reached over and grabbed my arm. “I don’t know where you got this notion that you’re better than the rest of us,” she said, “but you’re not. If it wasn’t for me you’d be out on the street.”
“If it wasn’t for you I’d have finished school by now, and I’d have a good job and we’d both be better off!”
Ma’s grip tightened on my arm. “We needed the money,” she said. “And you needed to find a husband to support us. How were you going to meet a chap locked away in that convent school?” I sighed. There was no talking to her when she got like this. I waited for the rest of it. “What about Gavin O’Rourke? He’s a fine chap and he makes a good living with that boat of his.”
“He’s a sailor,” I said.“I thought you’d no time for sailors after what Da did to us? Besides,” I finished, “it’s just not like that between us.”
Ma swore under her breath. “Love,” she said. “What good does it do you? You can make a marriage without it. I never loved your da.”
“And look how you ended up,” I said. “I’m tired. I’m going to lie down.”
I pulled my arm away from her and went into the granny room and lay down on the bed. All the earlier pleasure of possibility had drained out of me. Ma always managed to do this, I thought. Why did I even listen to her? I sighed. Well, when you lived together and slept together, it was impossible to escape. I closed my eyes and welcomed the darkness.