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The Linen Queen
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When American troops set up base in her village, some see them as occupiers but Sheila sees them as saviors–one of them may be her ticket out. Despite objections from her childhood friend, Gavin O’Rourke, she sets her sights on an attractive Jewish-American army officer named Joel Solomon, but her plans are interrupted by the arrival of a street-wise young evacuee from Belfast.
Frustrated, Sheila fights to hold on to her dream but slowly her priorities change as the people of Northern Ireland put old divisions aside and bond together in a common purpose to fight the Germans. Sheila’s affection for Joel grows as she and Gavin are driven farther apart. As the war moves steadily closer to those she has grown to love, Sheila confronts more abandonment and loss, and finds true strength, compassion, and a meaning for life outside of herself.
Table of Contents
From Monday to Thursday we sang to break the monotony; on Friday we sang to celebrate. In the four years I had worked at the Queensbrook Spinning Mill in County Armagh in the North of Ireland the singers were mute on only three occasions—the day Bridie McCardle's child was buried; the day Lizzie Grant caught her hair between the rollers of her spinning frame and was carried out on a stretcher; and the day after England declared war on Germany.
On this particular Friday in late March of 1941 we sang as usual to celebrate the upcoming two days of freedom from the mill. I stood barefoot, just as I had every weekday since I was a fourteen-year-old doffer, the water from the condensing steam swishing around my ankles, and forced a hank of flax through a trough of hot water to soften it. As I guided the flax down through the eye of the flyer and onto the yarn bobbin we finished up "My Lovely Rose of Clare" and paused for breath. My friend Patsy Mallon called out to a young lad who stood in the aisle near her frame.
"Would you ever come over here and piece me threads together, Danny? There's a good lad."
I looked up, wiping the sweat from my forehead with the back of my hand. Patsy was a big, bold girl with a large bosom and a salty tongue. She scared the wits out of young part-timers like Danny who went to school in the mornings and worked in the mill in the afternoons. Patsy would lean over them, pressing her breasts against them as they worked to tie the threads or replace the empty bobbins on her machine. I shot a glance at my other friend, Kathleen Doyle, who worked two spinning frames at the stand next to mine. Kathleen's face reddened as much as Danny's had done and she bowed her head. Kathleen was the most innocent girl on the floor.
The late March day was drawing in. Soon darkness would sift through the grimy windows, which were set so high up on the walls you couldn't see out of them. I looked over the enormous room with its dim light and orderly rows of wet spinning frames extending the length of it, separated by narrow aisles called passes. I felt small in here, dwarfed by the room's size and timid in the face of the rows of bobbins that grinned like misshapen teeth and spat and hissed like devils. I sighed. At least it was Friday. I would have two days off before I had to return to this cave.
Just as the Friday afternoon singing resumed—a rough chorus of spinners and doffers murdering the gentle, plaintive notes of "The Croppy Boy"—the doffing mistress, Miss Galway, marched down the middle aisle between the rows of spinning frames and blew her whistle louder than a banshee's scream. Miss Galway was an ancient woman—some said she'd been there as long as the mill itself—but she still had a fine set of lungs. Every time she blew her whistle to get the attention of the young part-timers we all winced. Today she blew it longer and louder than usual and we knew something was up. Without a word we all pulled the handles on the side of our frames and our machines shuddered and fell silent.
"Ladies, we have a visitor today. Mrs. McAteer wishes to make an announcement of some importance."
We all turned towards the door as Mrs. Hannah McAteer entered on cue. She was a tall, grim woman with a long, narrow face and black hair flecked with gray. She was the widowed sister of Mr. Carlson who owned the mill, and the mother of Mary McAteer who worked in the mill office. Patsy said the craic was that Hannah, a Quaker, had married a Catholic farmer who'd been killed in the First World War and left her penniless. She and her daughter were at the mercy of her brother, Patsy said, and that was why she always looked as if she'd just smelled shite.
"Good afternoon," Mrs. McAteer began, looking around as if she indeed smelled something bad. Well, who could blame her for that? The smell of oil and grease and sweat in the room would choke a horse.
"I have some very good news for you."
We left our machines and edged closer to her.
"I assume you have all heard of the Linen Queen competition that takes place every year at a linen mill in Northern Ireland. Well, this year it is Queensbrook's turn."
She attempted a smile as a cheer went up from the spinners. She raised her hand for silence. "Now, this is a very important honor for us here in Queensbrook. Mr. Carlson has asked me to head the committee to choose those girls lucky enough to be asked to enter the competition. I shall take this responsibility very seriously in order that Queensbrook may stand the best chance of winning. Six girls from Queensbrook will be given the chance to enter. That's four more than usually allowed, since we are the host mill. To be fair we will choose three from the weaving shed and three from the spinning mill."
Kathleen and Patsy stood on either side of me, each one clutching my arm.
"Well, no harm to the weaving girls," Patsy said, "but they all look like ghosts over there what with the heat and the noise and the dust. They'd be no competition at all. At least the spinners all have great complexions on account of the steam."
"Can you believe this, Sheila?" whispered Kathleen.
I wanted to believe it. A strange flutter took hold of my heart. I had heard about the Linen Queen competition in which girls from mills all around the North competed for the title. Talk was that the winner was awarded prize money as well as a crown and sash. Winning the crown would be nice, I thought, but the money might be enough to buy a ticket to England. My throat went dry.
"Of course you must understand that the Linen Queen competition is not merely a beauty competition."
Was Mrs. McAteer looking directly at me, or was I imagining things?
"A girl's fitness to represent the mill—good attendance, solid work habits, a respectable family, and, above all, good character—will be considered above looks. And of course she must be between eighteen and twenty-one years of age."
This time I was sure she glared at me when she spoke of character. True I had mocked her daughter, Mary, more than once and Mary had caught me at it. Well, Mary had deserved it. She'd called me names to my face and accused me of being loose with boys. How could I help it if the young eejits followed me out of the mill every day calling foolish oul' blather after me? It was Patsy who asked for that kind of thing, not me. But I was sure Mary had told her ma all about it. I hadn't cared until now. As if she read my thoughts, I turned to see Mary, a plump girl with black hair, standing in the doorway taking everything in.
"The competition will take place on Saturday night, April twelfth."
Mary's ma continued speaking to the hushed crowd. "The entrants will be announced one week from today, which will give the lucky girls a fortnight to prepare. Frocks will have to be festive, but modest. Those chosen will be given a list of rules. Good luck to all of you."
A festive frock, I thought. How in the name of God would I ever afford such a thing? The earlier flutter in my heart turned heavy.
Mrs. McAteer swung around and walked towards the door. No one moved. Then as if she'd suddenly had an afterthought she stopped and turned. "Oh, and the prize money this year is two hundred pounds."
A gasp went through the room.
"Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, that's a fortune of money," shouted Patsy. "I could move out on my own, and I could buy as much finery as I liked, and I wouldn't have to give that tight-fisted bastard another penny."
Patsy was talking about her da, who took all her money off her and had been beating the daylights out of her since she was a child.
"It would be like a miracle," Kathleen whispered. "Think what my ma could do with the likes of that."
Kathleen was the oldest of ten children. Her da was disabled and her ma had taken the consumption after years working in the weaving shed. The family depended on Kathleen's wages.
I said nothing. Thoughts collided in my brain. If it was based on looks I knew I'd stand a fair chance. And I hadn't missed a day's work since I started at the mill. I'd even fought off the mill fever that most youngsters suffered from when they first started. I'd kept going in those first few weeks even though I was hardly fit to stand. My attitude could be better I knew, but it was hard to smile all the time when you hated the mill as much as I did. And I had turned eighteen since the previous competition had been held in Lisburn and so now I could qualify for the first time. As for character—well, I realized that was in Mrs. McAteer's hands. Would she hold me back on account of the gossip that surrounded me?
A twinge of guilt crept over me when I thought of Patsy and Kathleen. We'd been friends since our schooldays and to tell the truth they were the only friends I had in the mill. They each deserved to win the prize. What if I was picked to enter and they weren't? I pushed the thought aside.
As we left the mill that night, all the talk was about the competition. I'd never witnessed such excitement. Even the older women who would have no chance of being picked encouraged the young ones. They were all delighted for us. I couldn't wait to talk to Ma.
I said good-bye to Patsy and Kathleen at the tram station. They both lived out in the country and came and went every day on the electric tram that the mill had laid on for workers from outlying towns. I lived in the mill village itself and had only a short walk to my house on Charlemont Square, one of two squares in the village with identical houses built around a green, all of them occupied by mill workers and their families. Well it wasn't my house, exactly. It was the house where my ma and I lodged with my father's sister, Kate, and her husband, Kevin. We had lived there since the time my da left on his boat when I was ten years old and never came back. Aunt Kate had taken us in, but she never let us forget her charity. Kevin was a big, burly customer with a bad temper. I stayed away from him as much as I could, particularly when he was on the drink.
My ma and I slept in the granny room at the back of the scullery in an old iron frame bed covered with four sacks. It wouldn't have been so bad if it hadn't been for the fact that there was a perfectly good bedroom up the stairs that had been standing empty for years. It had belonged to Kate and Kevin's only child, Donal, who had left home five years ago when he was seventeen and had not been seen since. I was at school when it happened, but according to the neighbors, when he left he had said he was never coming back. He'd fought with his parents for years and was always saying he couldn't wait to get away from them. I completely understood his need to escape. But Kate refused to believe he was gone for good and so she kept his room like a shrine—his clothes clean and pressed and hanging in the wardrobe, his copy books laid out on the small desk, his bed made up every week with fresh linen sheets. It was comical and eerie at the same time.
I slowed my step as I neared the house. Doubt began to taint my earlier excitement. Could I dare to hope that I'd even be picked to enter, let alone win? Maybe Ma would be in one of her good moods and would encourage me the way the other women in the spinning mill had done—but I was no sooner in the door when I realized it was a foolish hope. Ma was in one of her desperate bad moods. I could tell by the fact that she still wore her stained work apron and hadn't bothered to comb her hair. Ever since I was a child I never knew which Ma I was going to find when I walked into the house. There were days when she sang like a lark, all smiles and kisses. And there were days like this when she looked like an old woman with the life drained out of her.
"Don't go getting any ideas in your head!" she began. "There's girls all over the country better looking than you are, miss," she said. "And we've no money for fancy frocks and all the rest of it."
"Don't start, Ma," I said wearily. "I haven't even been picked yet."
"And you won't be!"
Ma worked in the weaving shed as a cloth passer, where she checked the woven cloth for faults. It was a good job, but a hard one. Most of the weavers hated her because she was so critical. It didn't seem to bother Ma. She was only forty years old, but sometimes she looked twice her age, as she did now. I felt a rush of sympathy for her. She'd had a hard time of it since my da had left. And it was no easy matter for her living in another woman's house and having to slave at the mill like the rest of us. But I shook the feeling off as quickly as it came. None of this was my fault. Why should I have to suffer as well?
Ma sat in the armchair beside the fire.
"I know what you're thinking, miss," she went on, her voice ragged from coughing and cigarettes. "You'll win this competition and then you'll be too good for the rest of us. You'll forget where you came from. And you'll go off gallivanting and forget about your duty to me. And me not a well woman."
Ma always added the last part to nail my guilt securely in place. I sighed.
"I don't want to talk about it, Ma."
I tried to push past her towards the scullery, but she reached over and grabbed my arm. "I don't know where you got this notion that you're better than the rest of us," she said, "but you're not. If it wasn't for me you'd be out on the street."
"If it wasn't for you I'd have finished school by now, and I'd have a good job and we'd both be better off!"
Ma's grip tightened on my arm. "We needed the money," she said. "And you needed to find a husband to support us. How were you going to meet a chap locked away in that convent school?"
I sighed. There was no talking to her when she got like this. I waited for the rest of it.
"What about Gavin O'Rourke? He's a fine chap and he makes a good living with that boat of his."
"He's a sailor," I said. "I thought you'd no time for sailors after what Da did to us? Besides," I finished, "it's just not like that between us."
Ma swore under her breath. "Love," she said. "What good does it do you? You can make a marriage without it. I never loved your da."
"And look how you ended up," I said. "I'm tired. I'm going to lie down."
I pulled my arm away from her and went into the granny room and lay down on the bed. All the earlier pleasure of possibility had drained out of me. Ma always managed to do this, I thought. Why did I even listen to her? I sighed. Well, when you lived together and slept together, it was impossible to escape. I closed my eyes and welcomed the darkness.
The next morning, Saturday, Ma refused to get up out of bed. When she was in one of her down moods she would lie there all day, refusing to open the curtains to let any light in. If I moved, she complained I was keeping her awake. After a while I could stand it no longer. I jumped out of the bed and drew back the curtains.
"You can't stay there all day, Ma," I said.
Ma turned over and hid her head under the four sacks.
"I'm not well," she moaned. "Why don't you go down to Mulcahy's later and get the bread."
"Och, Ma," I said, "you know I hate being around that man."
"It's your imagination," Ma said. "You think every man is after you. You've got a quare bob on yourself, my girl."
Ma turned over to face me. "There's money on the dresser—what few shillings we have left—and it's our turn to buy the bread. So go on now and get in the queue early."
It was twelve noon when I left the house. To tell the truth I was glad of an excuse to get out. The place smelled so musty I could hardly breathe. I took in a few gulps of fresh air the moment I closed the door behind me. I buttoned up my coat and walked back down the hill to wait for the tram into Newry, the main town in the area.
At four o'clock I was still stuck in the bread line outside Mulcahy's bakery on Hill Street. Myself and the other women there had been queuing up for hours. Just before closing time on Saturdays the bakery sold off the leftover bread and scones for next to nothing. They would be stale by Monday, so better for Mulcahy to get a few pennies for them than throw them out. The women with money would never have been caught dead in such a queue—those well-dressed ladies with their baskets had come and gone by now—hurrying away for fear they would catch a disease from the rest of us. I was mortified to be seen there, but today it was better than being stuck in the Queensbrook house.
I stood now, shivering in the chill March air. The other women wore coats and mufflers and old boots, but I wasn't going to be caught dead in a getup like that. Instead I wore my best coat, thin as it was, my bare legs freshly stained with tea, and high-heeled shoes. And, as usual, I had forgotten my gloves. I was freezing. I recognized many of the women from Queensbrook. The young ones chatted away, but the older ones looked dreary and defeated like my ma. We all carried empty canvas bags, hoping to fill them up with bread.
"What passes for bread these days is a disgrace," said one.
"Aye, nothing but water in it. No good for the children."
"And still they make you queue up and beg for it like dogs."
The line moved slowly. Darkness fell, and the wind picked up. I wrapped my coat tighter around me. Just as I reached as far as Mulcahy's the shutters came down on the windows and door. Mulcahy himself, an oul' boy with a red face, came out to confront us.
"Sorry, ladies. We're closed. You may go home now. And come back on Monday."
Groans and curses erupted from the line. Some of the women turned and left, a look of resignation on their faces. Others pleaded and coaxed, but Mulcahy shook his head.
"Go home now," he said again. "The bread's all gone. And I haven't all night to be arguing. Why hello, Sheila, I didn't see you in the crowd."
His voice turned sweet when he saw me. He grinned broadly, exposing yellowed teeth. "And how's your mammy, love?"
"She's not well at all," I lied. "She'll be desperate when I arrive back with no bread for the tea."
I knew exactly what I was doing. Some of the women watched me with mouths open. Mulcahy came over and put a hairy arm around my waist.
"Och, I'm sorry to hear that, love. Come with me now, sure I might be able to find a bun or two for your poor ma. Lovely woman, lovely woman."
I didn't know which of us was the bigger hypocrite. We both knew Mulcahy wanted to get me in the shop so he could press himself up against me and blow his hot stale breath on my cheek. I shrugged. I could tell him to feck off, or I could go in and put up with him so I could get the bread and not have to listen to Ma complain. I tossed my head at the women who were gaping at me.
"See youse Monday, girls," I said. "Safe home."
"So I hear the Linen Queen competition is at Queensbrook this year," Mulcahy said as he shoveled the bread into my bag. "A pretty girl like yourself should stand a grand chance of winning."
I shrugged. "I haven't been picked yet," I said.
"Och you will, love," Mulcahy said.
I thought if I kept the conversation going I could keep him at his distance.
"Besides," I said, "even if I'm picked, I have no money for a frock, so there's no point getting my hopes up."
It was the worst thing I could have said. Mulcahy laid down the half-full bag on the counter and pressed in close to me. "If it's just a matter of a frock," he whispered, "sure I'll be glad to see you right on that, love. I'd be happy to do you the wee favor."
I felt his heavy breath in my ear and the weight of his thick body pressing against me. I swallowed down the bad taste that rose in my throat. Soon his lips moved across my cheek and found my mouth. I stood paralyzed while his tongue slobbered over mine. He pulled back. "I'd want nothing for the favor, except for you to be nice to me, love."
He pulled away and winked. "Now let's fill up the rest of this bag."
He finished pushing in the bread and buns and scones and handed the bag back to me. "You just let me know when you need the money, love."
I backed out of the shop without answering him and hurried down Monaghan Street in the direction of the tram to Queens-brook. I let one tram go. I wasn't ready yet to go home and face Ma. I sat down on a bench and leaned forward, my elbows on my knees and my palms on my cheeks. I thought over what Mulcahy had said. What if I was picked and needed money for the frock? Would I take his offer? The thought sickened me. But there again, how badly did I want to get out of this place? Shouldn't I be willing to do anything? The thoughts gave me a sore head and I closed my eyes.
It was well after seven in the evening when I stepped off the tram in Queensbrook. A cold, spitting rain hit me in the face like needles. My hands and feet were freezing. I opened the door quietly, hoping Ma was still in bed and that Kate and Kevin were out. But Ma was waiting for me in her armchair beside the fire.
"It's about time, miss," she said.
"I'll put the bread in the scullery," I said, ignoring her bad temper. "I got the last of it."
"We were all waiting for it for the tea," Ma complained. "It's probably stale by now."
"Well, we have some now," I said wearily, "and don't ask me what I had to do to get it."
The atmosphere at the mill on Monday morning was giddy. The spinners could talk of nothing but the Linen Queen competition.
"I saw some lovely material in Foster's on Hill Street. It would make a gorgeous dress," Patsy said.
"Well for you has the money to be dealing with Foster's," I said.
"Sure I'll take the price out of me winnings!"
"But material is rationed." Kathleen was always the cautious one. "After all, there's a war on."
Patsy laughed. "Well, if we can't get it here there's nothing to stop us smuggling it up from the South."
"Except the customs men," said Kathleen.
Patsy laughed louder and grabbed her breasts. "Sure they'll be too busy looking at these to bother about what's in me bag!"
Kathleen reddened. "You're an awful case, Patsy, so you are."
The week dragged on as slow as a funeral march. My thoughts swung between tipsy hope and sober despair. I fought to reason with myself. If I wasn't picked it would all be for the best. I wouldn't have the worry about the frock and all the rest of it. And to be picked and not win would surely be worse than not to be picked at all. But a faraway voice would always cut in. What if I was picked? And what if I won? The possibility of it sent me into a state of fever just like the one I suffered when I first came to the mill. I was so weak I could hardly stand, and I wanted to vomit. I found myself praying for Mrs. McAteer to appear and put us all out of our misery.
Our singing had reached a crescendo on Friday afternoon as we repeated the chorus of "The Boys from the County Armagh" for the third time when Miss Galway reached for her whistle. She wouldn't even have needed to blow it—we all stood immediately at attention. But blow it she did and clapped her hands. We turned off our machines without bidding and crowded around her. Mrs. McAteer appeared, carrying a paper in her hand. You could have heard a mouse in the room it was so quiet.
"Hello again, ladies," she began. "This is the moment you've been waiting for all week."
Get on with it, I thought. I had no patience for any rigamarole and nor did anyone else.
"Well, I won't keep you in suspense any longer."
She raised the paper in front of her and cleared her throat.
"As I had mentioned last week, our plan was to choose three girls from the weaving shed and three from the spinning mill." She paused. "Alas, we did not find any eligible girls in the weaving shed."
Patsy elbowed me. "Didn't I tell you? They all look like fecking ghosts over there. All the more chances for us!"
"And so that means we will have six from the spinning mill."
A cheer went up and Mrs. McAteer put up her hand for silence.
"The first girl chosen is Miss Eileen O'Hare. Where are you, Eileen?"
We all swung around. Eileen O'Hare had only been at the mill about a year. She was a pretty enough girl with red hair and white skin, small and slender, and quiet. We didn't know what to make of it. But we clapped politely as she blushed and nodded. I took in a breath. One down, I thought.
"Congratulations, Eileen, we all wish you the best of luck," Mrs. McAteer continued.
For the love of God would she not hurry things up?
"I'm dying to pee," whispered Patsy.
"Next, we have Abby Smith. Congratulations, Abby."
Abby Smith was one of the few Protestant girls on the floor. She kept to herself and none of us knew much about her. She was pale and fair-haired, with a long nose and thin face. We applauded halfheartedly as she bowed her head and uttered a muffed thank-you.
I couldn't understand what the logic was. Both Eileen and Abby were quiet girls, pretty enough, but no oil paintings. My heart began to sink. If they weren't taking looks into it at all, then what chance did I stand?
The third girl, Celia Foye, was called. Like the other two, she was quiet and tidy, with wide eyes and the look of a frightened rabbit.
Three to go, I thought to myself. My fingers had turned to ice. I could scarcely breathe. If I did not get this chance, I thought, my life would be over. I would be doomed…
"Kathleen Doyle," I heard from far away. Could I have heard right? Kathleen was my friend, and a lovely girl, but she was hardly ft for a beauty competition. She was plain and stout and… och, Jesus…
Kathleen gasped beside me. She threw her hands to her mouth. "Oh… oh," she cried. "I don't believe it. Oh, wait 'til I tell Mammy."
I shot a look at Patsy. Her mouth was open in shock. I swallowed hard and gave Kathleen a hug. "Well done, Kathleen," I whispered, even though it took everything I had to get the words out.
"And now, last but not least, Miss Patsy Mallon."
I was struck dumb. Patsy? Of all people—Patsy? I could get no words out. Patsy let out a yell that would have wakened the dead.
"Jesus, Mary, and Joseph," she screamed. "Can you believe it at all?"
The young part-timers shouted and whistled and clapped. Patsy was very popular with all of them. Kathleen broke into a broad smile and hugged Patsy. Then she turned to me, jiggling with excitement. "You're next, Sheila," she said. "I know it."
When Mrs. McAteer began to fold up the piece of paper bearing the names of those chosen, it suddenly struck me. She had said "last but not least" before she called Patsy's name.
"But that's only five," I cried out.
Everyone swung around to look at me. The room fell silent. I trembled with fear and passion and anger. Mrs. McAteer pinned me with a stare, a faint smile on her face.
"You are correct, Miss McGee. I have only called five names. The sixth girl chosen is Mary McAteer."
"But that's not fair," I cried again. "She… she doesn't even work in the mill."
"Oh, but she absolutely does," said Mrs. McAteer in a sweet, calm voice. "Mary has worked diligently in the mill offices for the last three years. Without her you girls would not get your pay packets accurate and on time every Friday. I would say that more than qualifies her to be considered for the competition."
I did not have to turn around to know that Mary McAteer was watching from the doorway—all the spinners were staring in that direction. Instead I stood rooted to the ground.
"Aren't you going to congratulate me, Sheila?" boomed Patsy.
I wondered if Patsy would have congratulated me had the situation been reversed. I said nothing. Kathleen came up and put her arm around my shoulder.
- On Sale
- Mar 2, 2011
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Center Street