She sings as she pedals her big black bike down our street …
‘Should auld acquaintance be forgot?’ Dark locks, a tangled shock of clumps and wisps, dance carelessly in the wind …
‘And never brought to mind.’ The pitch is perfect …
‘We’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet.’ The thing is its mid-July. Why she sees fit to ring in the New Year every day, all 365 of them is anyone’s guess.
All my life, this weird woman has ridden the streets of our town. Cheeks daubed crimson, like two perfectly round plums, in stark contrast to hot pink lippy, leaking at the edges. She’s dubbed Irish Mary, though in truth no-one knows. Be she English, Irish or Welsh, she sings the traditional Scottish song with an authentic Scottish accent.
Her vocabulary is colourful, like her flimsy, flapping skirts. When Irish Mary rings her bell, you move - you move fast! She has a whole library of profanities which are delivered with passion in a prolonged attack, until the hapless victim feels suitably humbled and hangs his head in shame.
Some say she’s a lady of the night, plying her trade around the less wholesome districts of town. Rumour has it that she abandons her bloomers after 6pm, dumping them in the wicker basket attached to the handle bars. I never checked it out!
And still others claim she’s an escapee from the old Lunatic Asylum up the road. That seems more likely, but also untrue.
She’s a legend for sure, but wait; there’s more to Mary than a wacky no-pants screwball on a big black bike.
I was one of the neighbourhood kids once, ragging and joshing as Mad-House Mary careered through the streets. Until one day, by chance I’d wandered into an unfamiliar part of town; a place we kids from the posh side, houses with gardens and window cleaners, were forbidden to roam.
In the distance I heard Mary singing her heart out. As the voice grew louder, I hid behind an upturned dustbin on the footpath.
‘We’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet … for auld lang syne.’ She was in fine voice. I watched as she slammed the brakes, dismounted inelegantly and abandon the bike with its front wheel spinning.
In the apartment block opposite, a curtain moved in a ground floor window. Mary pulled a carrier bag from her wicker basket and strode with purpose towards the entrance. My curiosity peaked. My father’s warning - no, threat sprang to mind: ‘Keep well away from the slums. There’s nothing good comes out of those fleapits.’ I hesitated momentarily, until the urge to pry won out.
I was scared; I was gripped. I checked the coast was clear before sprinting across. My eyes watered from the pungent stench of feline tiddle as I tumbled over a heap of rotting garbage grazing my knee. Where was she? I’d lost track of Mary.
In front was a flight of stone steps where huge cobwebs hung from corners. Dog pooh and tab ends littered the floors and graffiti, of the basest variety, decorated the walls where paint had peeled. Two floors up I heard voices from below. I retraced my steps. A ground floor door was ajar. I stooped to fiddle with my shoelace and heard women’s voices, speaking Gaelic.
Scuttling outside I peeped through the gap in the curtain. Mary, sleeves rolled past elbows was carrying a bowl of soapy suds. She knelt on the floor beside an old woman lying on a filthy mattress. I watched as Mary carefully slipped an arm out of the woman’s bed-jacket. She winced in pain. Mary took the woman’s weight, as she slid the garment round the back and down the other arm. The nightdress was pulled off similarly; her modesty preserved by a large bath towel.
The woman was sponged from head to toe and her swollen arthritic knees and elbows gently massaged with a soapy palm.
Cursing, loud-mouthed youths behind me spurred me to move on. These kids from the forbidden hovels spied Mary’s bike. One of them approached, straightened it up and wheeled it inside the entrance. I was astounded. Mary was no stranger here!
At length Mary left, taking her tools of trade in the carrier bag that she dumped in the wicker basket on her big black bike. As she gained momentum she sang, in her perfectly Scottish accent …
‘We’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet … for auld lang syne.’
*Originally a poem written by the poet Robert Burns, the words ‘Auld Lang Syne,’ literally translates from old Scottish dialect to mean ‘Old Long Ago,’ and is about love and friendship in times past. The words ‘We’ll take a Cup of Kindness yet,’ relate to a drink shared by men and women to symbolise friendship.
*Gaelic is a Celtic language spoken in parts of Scotland and Ireland.
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