Watching the red lights of a High Nelly dynamo going over the crest of the hill and foreseeing the business consequences in a small rural Irish village.
When I was a boy in Belnaleck by the shores of Erne, in the townland of hilly Toneyloman on the main road to Teemore and the border, ye will be amazed, I think, to discover here that, back in the rural forties of the last century, we were in possession of a unique kind of traffic lights long before there were any others in the county. And they were a really priceless element of the folklore back then.
I will explain how that happened and how valuable those lights were for my beloved shopkeeper father Sandy that I mentioned here also last week. I know I’m delving into the past again but maybe the yarn, as a fragment of folklore, is worth relating.
You see, in hard economic times during World War II, with our shop filled in one corner with grey-backed ration books for scarce supplies, and with cash even scarcer for many, a lot of Sandy’s customers, decent lovely folk all, obtained much of their shopping on credit. Sandy had a special book in which he wrote it all down faithfully to the last penny.
Seldom enough those decent and honorable customers cleared all their debt, but they made regular payments to keep the amounts owed as small as possible. It was the way things were done in harder times around Belnaleck than now.
As the eldest son, after his death, I poignantly recall folk coming into the shop to clear off every cent they might have owed. Again it was the way things were. Soul-warming in the extreme.
Back, though, to those unique traffic lights on the hill outside the little shop windows. I need to explain those in more detail.
There were very few cars on the road then, of course, and the majority of Sandy’s customers arrived at his counter either as pedestrians or atop the huge High Nelly bicycles so common then. Those heavy bicycles were equipped with dynamo lights front and rear.
The rear light was a tiny red light which glowed as brightly as the energy the cyclist was generating as he/she propelled the High Nelly along the road home. The hill in Toneyloman was not very steep at all, so the little red light glowed brightly when the cyclist was in the whole of his or her health on the way home, with the shopping on the carrier unit behind the saddle equipped with its dangling puncture repair kit inside a black leather purse. Many older readers born over here will remember those clearly I think.
The way things worked was that Sandy and the customer and friend would say goodnight and the customer would start for home up the hill on his/her High Nelly. And Sandy would view that rear red light as it attacked the hill.
In the cyclist’s prime that red light was likely to glow even more ruby red when the hill was being mounted but, tellingly, if the years or bad health were taking their toll the cyclist would be forced to dismount and walk over the crest. And the red traffic light would either flicker weakly or maybe go out altogether.
And that sign, as I learned later from my father, was an early warning that perhaps the time had come when he would soon be losing the trade of a good friend, neighbor, and customer. That is the explanation behind our rural possession of a unique set of traffic lights of a special indicative kind.
They were always displaying the red light you see. I’m sure, in a subtle way, though I don’t know for sure, that Sandy, as a businessman, would have gently encouraged the customer involved to reduce the amount standing against his/her name on the book behind the counter to reduce the bill as much as possible.
Every now and then today, outside touristic shops and folk museums, I observe with amusement the survivors of the last generation of those celebrated High Nelly bicycles being on display as artifacts of yesterday. I’m always tempted to mount them and see if the dynamo lighting systems are still working.
Not certain though, as the years capture my legs and energy, that I would still be able to drive one of them up the Toneyloman hill without having to dismount and allowing that infallible rear red light to flickeringly disappear before the crest.
I wryly fancy that Sandy, were he still in business behind the counter in Belnaleck, would encourage me, next time I dropped in, to put some more credit on the book, to maybe reduce, even by a little bit, what I already owed.
So that, for the moment, is the yarn of our childhood traffic lights that revealed so much about life and living back then.