|Illustration by Cathy Bartholomew|
Her name was Patsy McGurn. She had bog brown eyes and glossy black hair and I truly loved her.
She was my first sweetheart. We were both eight years old and we shared the same double desk in Rossdoney School.
We sat close together and we even held hands a few times when nobody was watching. We quickly kissed three times altogether.
But we broke up extremely violently and passionately during this very week all those long years ago.
And wee Patsy nearly burned down our house during the breakup.
T'was awful altogether. I will never forget it no matter how long I live.
All kinds of forces and spirits were involved in our breakup of course, because this is Halloween week and that was always a special and passionate period in the Irish year. There were witches and ghosts and evil spirits outside in the darkness of the new winter.
The Catholic Church, as was its wont in that Ireland of its prime pomp, sought to "Christianize" the ancient pagan festival by dedicating the end of October and the start of November to the Holy Souls that were bound for Heaven, yes, but still suffering fearful torments in Purgatory.
You could release them though, magically, by going to the chapel, saying certain prayers and going to their gravesides.
It was a plenary indulgence, powerful stuff altogether which ran concurrent with the fiery pagan practices of the old Halloween.
It was not so easy releasing Holy Souls from Purgatory by going to their gravesides after you'd heard your father and granny telling horrific ghost stories the night before when Halloween was celebrated around the hearths of home with games and devilment of all kinds.
But back to wee Patsy McGurn, my sweetheart.
We had all sorts of games in our kitchen to mark the season, you see, and one of them involved placing pairs of hazel nuts who signified sweethearts and potential husbands and wives on the coals of the open hearth. The nuts had been soaked in a little lard beforehand to make them more igneous.
My mother Mary was our teacher at school and she knew well I loved Patsy McGurn to bits. So she paired us together on top of a red coal.
The rest of the family were also equipped with sweethearts but I don't remember who they were. But I watched myself and wee Patsy like a hawk.
In the ideal scenario our two little blue-flecked flames would become one after a minute or two and burn brightly together thereafter to represent a long happy marriage.
Before this we would have played the usual Halloween games. You were blindfolded and spun around in front of the table and then placed your blind hand in one of the saucers lined up on the oil-clothed table.
There were the usual luck or ill-luck symbols in there. Water represented emigration, a gold ring meant wealth, and a little soil, the Lord between us and all harm, meant you were due for an early grave! The dark spirits were never far away at Halloween.
And then there was the hanging apples you had to catch with your teeth. And the apples floating in a basin of cold water. And fortunes told with cards.
And later, after you had eaten a million nuts and apples and sweet cake, Sandy in the corner would tell dreadful ghost stories. He was good at it.
His ghosts were dreadful yokes and, worse still, they all resided in the parish, some only a few hundred yards away from the house. And our mother would tut-tut and say no child in the house would sleep a wink for a month if he allowed the ghosts come any closer than that.
But anyway, coming back to the hearth and the nuts, there came suddenly this significant explosion and, dammit if my wee Patsy McGurn did not fly away from me, her own sweetheart, showering sparks and flames.
And not alone that, but did she not fly in underneath the big soft old sofa in front of the fire, still flaming. And was there smoke there? And confusion? Yes there was.
And did part of the sofa's old jute belly catch fire? It did.
And had Sandy not to throw a throw a jug of water on it to quench the fire? Yes he had.
And smoke and confusion in the kitchen for 10 minutes afterwards.
And when next I looked at the hearth I saw that Patsy had blown me into the heart of the fire and I was burned to a crisp.
It was the first time I heard the word "compatible." My mother said it when the fuss died down.
"Cormac,” says she, “it looks like yourself and Patsy are not very compatible." And she explained what that meant. And I took that to heart at once.
Poor wee Patsy looked puzzled and hurt when we went back to school. I sat further away than before. I never held her hand again under the desk, and there were no more kisses.
Many years later, when I heard of her happy marriage, I remembered that Halloween and the fiery way our romance ended under a blazing sofa!