Tuesday, 5 August 2014

The Washer Woman

When I was about five, possibly six, I was staying with Granny Begley for a while. I'm not sure why, I've a feeling my parents had to go somewhere. None of that mattered, as far as I was concerned I was off on my holidays, even though it was the middle of winter. One day Granny Begley had to go into the village to pick up something at the post office. She dressed me in my little wellington boots, my stiff brown duffel coat and woolly hat. It was very cold out so she put a pair of socks on my hands. I thought this was very funny, Granny Begley didn't know that socks go on your toes not your fingers. I was glad of them later because it was freezing on that long walk to the village.

We walked for hours and hours and hours before we got to there. I was sure we must have walked all the way across the county by then. Granny said I was a silly-billy. I didn't like the post office, there was nothing to see in there, I wanted to walk around the corner and look at the ducks in the river. Being a different time, when everything was safe and kids had the run of the world, Granny Begley said that I could as long as I promised to stay on the little stone bridge, which was fine by me. The bridge had holes in it that I could see through. When I rounded the corner I saw a group of boys playing a game on the bridge. It looked like great fun so I ran over to see what was going on.

The boys had fistfuls of pebbles and they were throwing them in the river and shouting. I was worried they were scaring away the ducks so I peeked through a hole but there were no ducks, only an old woman stooped in the middle of the river. She must have been a hundred years old, her hair was dirty grey and very long, it looked as course as barbed wire. Her back was crooked and she beat something against the rocks sending water flying everywhere. She stood knee deep in the freezing river, the hem of her skirt dipped into the water, ignoring the caterwauling boys on the bridge. Her skin was nearly brown from harsh weather, covered with liver spots and riddled with crevices. I had never seen a person with such blotchy wrinkly skin. Just then one of the boys landed a pebble bang on target, the woman looked up angrily. Her face frightened the britches off of me. One eye was as white as milk, while the other was blood red. She hadn't a tooth left in her head and if I thought her hands were wrinkly, they didn't hold a candle to her face. I changed my mind, she must have been a million years old not a hundred.

To my undying shame, I got caught up in the mob mentality and started throwing pebbles along with the other boys. That was until I was lifted clean off the ground by the back of my coat. Two quick slaps from an experienced hand and my arse was glowing as hot as the embers of hell. I had never seen Granny Begley so angry in all my life, short as it was. She scattered the boys in seconds not missing one of them with a thump to the ear or a boot to the rump. I just stood in the middle of the bridge bawling for all I was worth. Granny was furious and dragged me all the way back home by the arm, not saying a word the whole long way. When we got to the house I was sent straight to bed. I stayed there for weeks and weeks, realistically about twenty minutes, before I sniffled my way out into the kitchen where Granny was sitting beside the open fire, looking deep into the embers. She didn't look mad any more, or even sad. She just looked far away, if you know what I mean.

"Sor-r-r-ry Granny," I snuffled in my sorriest voice trying to dig my chin all the way into my chest.
"Oh come here," she said in her lovely Granny voice and lifted me into her lap. I snuggled into her and sucked my thumb feeling very hard done by. She smelled of tea and roses, oh and peppermint. She rocked over and back rubbing my head as the logs crackled in the grate. 
"You should never throw stones at anyone, especially an old lady."
"I won’t Granny, cross my heart."
"Good boy," she said and gave me a kiss on the head.

~~~
I never spoke about that day for years afterwards, it turned out that Granny Begley never mentioned it either. She took that particular little incident to the grave with her. In the weeks after her passing our family told many stories about our times with Granny. One evening I was sitting beside the open fire in Granny Begleys house with my Mom. The fire crackled in the grate just like it had when I was a boy, it brought that day flooding back. The memory was too vivid to keep bottled up so I told my Mom what had happened so many years ago.

"I don't believe she kept that to herself all those years," said Mom. Even then telling her as a grown man, I felt the sting of shame.
"I know, I still feel terrible throwing stones at such an old woman."
"She wasn't that old. The Washer Woman was just about the same age as Granny Begley, I think she is still alive actually."
"You must be joking, she looked ancient and that was years ago."
"She was cursed that was all."
"Cursed? Come on Mom."
"It's true."
"Go on tell me about this curse then."

This is the story my Mom told me that day.

~~~
When Granny Begley was just a slip of a girl, Bess was a few years older and a stunning beauty. Granny didn't have much time for Bess, nor did any of the girls in the village. Bess was not only beautiful, she was incredibly vain. One boy was never enough she wanted them all. No woman's son, or husband for that matter, was off limits. She would flirt with them, tease them and then just when she knew she had them wrapped around her little finger, she would drop them like a hot potato.

That is exactly what she did to Matty McGrath. He was obsessed with Bess and couldn't stay away from her. She drove that boy mad, teasing him, stringing him along only to turn her eye on another man at the last minute. One evening Bess arranged to meet Matty on the village bridge. She was very late but he waited anyway. 

Low and behold down she comes arm and arm with some English soldier that had chatted her up outside the pub.  She glided along, brazen as you like, swishing her new summer dress as she walked dragging this fella along to the bridge. Matty snapped, he tore into the soldier. Matty was young and tough but no match for fully grown man trained in fighting. Bess looked on proud, PROUD, that these men were fighting over her. Sadly Matty pulled out a penknife, which was only boyish bravado, but the soldiers training kicked in. The little blade ended up buried in Matty's guts. Seeing the blood the English man ran back to his mates in the pub and they hightailed it as fast as they could.

Bess was horrified and tried to help Matty, she cried and held him, holding his hand and cradling his head. The news of the fight spread through the village like wild fire. The doctor was sent for, if he had been home that night things might have been different, tragically he wasn't. Matty passed away right there on the bridge, Bess holding him and sobbing. With a final shuddering breath, Matty was gone and there was nothing more Bess could do. She covered his face with his cap and stood up. That was when she saw the blood. Her legs were covered, her hands and her dress. Seeing herself drenched in Matty's blood must have been a terrible thing, even more when she felt it was all her fault. Bess ran to the edge of the river and began washing off the blood. As unkind circumstance would have it, that was when Matty's mother arrived on the bridge. She had been told about the fight and had never liked her son hanging around with the village trollop. She saw her darling Matty laid out in the middle of the road, Bess down by the stream washing blood off her hands. Mrs McGrath flew at the girl.


She grabbed Bess by the hair dragging her into the middle of the stream dunking her under the water again and again.

"Wash, you bitch, wash," she screamed. "You will never get my son's blood off your hands. You killed him, you murdered him! You did it with your pretty skin, and terrible beauty.  A curse on you, you little bitch. Every sin will stick to your skin, never to be washed away, so everyone can see you for what you are." At this point Mr McGrath appeared and waded out into the river dragging his deranged wife to the bank. She collapsed there crying. "She took him from us Tom, she took our lovely Matty."

Bess vanished into the night, it was months before she was seen again. Some argue it was the curse, others said it was madness that had changed her so much. She was no longer the beauty she had been. Patches had appeared on her hands and legs where they had been covered in Matty McGrath's blood. Her hair had silvered and grown brittle. Her once lustrous skin was now dry and cracked, she hid herself under thick stinky shawls, never meeting anyone's eye. She was disowned by her family and shunned by the village. Bess eventually moved into a tiny hovel at the edge of the woods.

One day, Bess was seen standing in the middle of the river, washing a man's clothes. Rubbing them against the rocks and rinsing them again and again in the chilly mountain water. A week after that she was spotted hobbling out of the church, she looked ten years older, the lines beginning to show on her hands and her face. Legend has it that the clothes she washed belonged to Mr McGrath. He had swindled a neighbour in a land deal and felt tainted by the sin. Bess had offered to help as she felt she owed the family. Her curse had absorbed his sin and added it to her own. From then on bundles of clothes began appearing at Bess's doorstep with a shilling left on top. Down she would go to the river, summer or depth of winter, and wash the owner’s sins into her own skin.

Granny Begley had gone into the river once and tried to get Bess to see sense. It was useless. 

Bess said, "It's my penance, the price of vanity." She kept pounding the clothes against the slimy rocks, with each wash adding another line to her face and hands.
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