By Marie Gahan
I’ve just come in from the supermarket and put all my groceries away. Next, came the vegetables and lastly the fruit. As I arranged oranges, apples, plums and kiwis in a bowl, I had a flashback to my childhood, when we didn’t have access to the wide variety of fruit we have today.
In fact, there was a time when an apple was looked on as an occasional treat, to be eaten slowly, savouring every last bite. There weren’t many apples about in Dublin of the late fifties, or early sixties.
Growing up by the canal, we children spent a lot of time there, especially when the weather was fine. We’d wave at every Guinness barge that chugged by, laden with empty porter kegs, on its way to journey’s end at St James’s Harbour and the brewery.
We loved to watch Michael, the lock man open the lock gates with his giant key, and see the water rushing down into the lock below. Every young boy in the locality learned to swim in the canal and used it to cool down on sunny summer days. But Autumn had its own exciting and sometimes secret delights.
The Little Sisters of the Poor had an old folk’s home that backed onto the canal, and word had it, that behind that high wall, there were orchards full of rosy apples and lush pears in abundance, just ripe for the picking.
I was six years old the first time my brother Billy reluctantly, took me with him and his pals to ‘box the fox’, Dublin slang slang for stealing apples from an orchard.
Before we left the house, Mam had given him strict orders to stay close to me and make sure I didn’t go too near the water. Little sisters were a pain in the butt and he wasn’t impressed at the prospect.
So when the chance of free apples came about, there was no contest in his mind. He was going anyway. But his friends weren’t very pleased with the idea of me tagging along.
“She’s a girl,” they said disparagingly. “She’s too small and she’ll only be in the way.”
But he protested. “Look, she’s very light. Between us, we can pull her up to the top of the wall and she can keep nix.”
I was unceremoniously hoisted to the top, with a bird’s eye view of apple trees groaning under the weight of their succulent fruit. I had never seen as many in my life.
My job was to shout the alarm if the Mother Superior happened to come in sight. She was known to stroll the orchards, rosary in hand, as she prayed. A tall, statuesque figure in her long black habit, she struck terror in the heart of any intruder she encountered.
Lured by the lushness of Worcester and Cox’s Pippin, one, by one, the boys stole in different directions across the good Sisters’ hallowed ground, leaving me a lonely sentinel on my lofty perch.
When they disappeared among the greenery, I held my breath as long as I could and wished with all my heart that they’d come back soon.
What would I do if Mother Mary Agnes appeared out of nowhere? And how would I get down off this wall? It was a very long drop to the ground.
I kept my eyes peeled for the boys and it felt like they were gone forever, each minute an eternity. Then, suddenly, I spied them in the distance, running in my direction.
A speedy exit was crucial. If Mother Mary Agnes suddenly appeared, at this late stage, all would be lost. She’d haul them by the ear, to the little chapel in the grounds, and make them all recite theRosary for their sins. But worse still, she’d confiscate their precious booty.
Luckily, the boys had found an unwitting accomplice in Our Lady, who after all, once had a little boy herself, and seemed to turn a blind eye to their roguery.
Having climbed up her pedestal, it was just a ‘bunt’ up to her outstretched hands. From there, she proffered a perfect plaster foothold to her shoulder; and finally onto her head, then over the wall to safety.
Gansey-loaded, the boys appeared, cheeks as rosy as the forbidden fruit hidden beneath their autumn woollies and we all walked back in triumph to the canal bank, flaunting our ill-gotten gains.
Now that the deed was done and I had proven my usefulness, Billy and his friends could afford to be magnanimous. They treated me like an honourary member of their gang and shared the spoils with me. We all binged on Beauty of Bath as we lay on the bank, watching the Guinness barges barrelling through the lock gates.