By Noel King
Kitty watched the flicker in the dark from the new Sacred Heart light at the end of the stairs; her lips moving in quiet prayer and the odd crackle from her fire the only sounds. With his steps at last sounded outside she grasped her beads more firmly and sat up to face him.
Her son-in-law switched on the light and blinked back momentarily at her. “Still up, Mrs.?” he mumbled. She didn’t respond or hear his retorts on why she’d sit in the dark, as he tore off his boots and pulled himself, panting – and briefly blocking her view – up the stairs. She blessed herself, grabbed a tea towel and with a nervous and pushed down the smooth, black switch by the back door. She jumped at the click, then was at peace again in the dark.
On the stairs she became careful without the light from her oil lamp, which only that day had been made redundant. She was careful too of new, unfamiliar chips, children’s toys that could be lying there. From the top, she saw the Sacred Heart from a new position and stared at the blank marks where the photographs of her mother and father had not yet been replaced.
Kitty passed to her room, splashed some barely warm water into her mother’s pink flower bowl, felt egg stains on the white linen cloth as she dried, and undressed. Making the sign of the cross on her grandchildren’s foreheads, she slipped in beside the eldest, she had always slipped in beside someone in this very bed; her older sister, her younger sister; her husband, Joe; and now her grandchildren.
It was winter so Kitty prayed in bed, before turning on her side and pressing her eyes shut. They were soon open again remembering her mother’s reaction when they both saw their first motor car. If there was a moon Kitty would have seen her sunflower wallpaper hanging in torn strips. She wondered what class of paper they’d put up now?
Kitty had failed to busy herself today as men hacked her house. No stranger had ever been in her room before, had ever moved her bed and dresser or scratched them roughly back into position.
A visit to a cousin in Dublin twenty years ago came to her; the bright lights she saw there, the flood-lit music hall with her namesake, Kate Captaw, performing all those songs had heard on Mr. Maddox’s radio when she went to clean for him. On arriving home, her beloved Joe – lying where her granddaughter lay now – had put his arms around her, told her he smelt the city off her, and didn’t like it. But he’d been glad she’d gone.
Kitty had stayed silent when her son-in-law announced they were getting ‘the gadget’. Father O’Connor had said at Mass that everyone should get it, that ’twas time for it. That the whole parish would be transformed by it. But Kitty was cautious, like many of her generation.
Sleep hadn’t come when, with her grandchildren moving about the room, Kitty rose to her duties, blinking in the unnatural light in the room. “Holy God, who put that on? Why did the Lord give us daylight?”
“But, you can see better now Nana. It’s 1947. It’s a new world, so my teacher says.”
Her grandmother scoffed taking the hairbrush to the girls’ heads, her favourite routine.
“You look tired Mod, didn’t you sleep?” her daughter asked.
“Ah sure, how would anyone sleep with the lives around us changin’ like ’tis … are we outa oatenmeal?” She upturned the white tin.
With the girls gone to school, Kitty gave her grandson his breakfast and as her daughter suckled the younger baby she slowly went round the house examining each black circle with the little switch in the middle. Her eyes tried to follow the wire, but jumped back to source. Again, she started, hand holding the table. Her vision blurred into several lines. She made tea, shut eyes by the fire, and started again. This time with close, slow precision she followed each wire across the ceiling to its exit.
Her grandson was a small help feeding the chickens. A neighbour man came into the yard, patted the child’s head and followed Kitty to the kitchen. She smoked a cigarette with him as they drank her daughter’s tea.
“How’s the blasted gadget going for ye?” was all he wanted to know. He went on to swear he’d gotten a shock from the thing the night before.
“Have ta be careful, Mike,” she said, “don’t catch it with wet hands, whatever ye do.” He worried too if the bill would go up in no time at all.
As dusk fell Kitty screamed seeing the eldest child handle it. Kitty’s hands covered her face in her chair. Kitty wants to hear: “Hush Nana, it’s all right” or “Hush Nana, it’s safe” or even “Hush Nana, I am allowed” but the child hadn’t noticed any reaction. The child took a book, sat on the bottom stair, a new position for reading.
Sunday evening she took the eldest child, the long way round to the top of the hill, refusing to go under those new wires on ugly poles. Together they watched lights go on in six neighbouring households. “Why is ours not on yet, Nana?”
“Don’t know love, maybe … Aah there, there ’tis.”
The child smiled, relieved: “It’s a bright future, Nana, it’s 1947 and it’s a very bright future.”
The day of the Christmas holidays Kitty stood as usual at the outside light ’til she heard their voices, then placed thick cut slices of white bread on a rack over the fire. Her daughter pulled the baby from her breast and covered herself. The baby began to cry. His sisters came in and rushed attention. A cold hand wiped over his dribble.
“Warm yerselves. And wash yer hands before handling the baby,” their mother shouted. Her husband was home, fixing a hole under a press from where the girls said that the mouse had come on Saturday night.
It was then the bang came. The sudden darkness. The girls got frightened. Their father cursed the loss of the wireless. It wouldn’t be for long, their mother assured them, the man would come and fix it in the morning. “Where did you put that lamp of yours, woman?” he asked. “Is it hidden under your bed?”
Kitty raised her eyebrow in agreement and gave him a tight smile. Then she lifted the toast and gently began to scrape on butter.