Wednesday, 13 July 2016

The Housekeepr and the Pig Man

   While throwing out a very stale half-loaf of bread recently I experienced a pang of guilt, closely followed by a dollop of nostalgia.

   I recognized the guilt instantly. Where I came from food was never discarded. On my grandfather’s farm the sheepdogs ate anything we didn’t. 

   Little else was thrown out either. In a corner of the barn lay all manner of broken pitchforks, scythes and shovels - some so old they might have been used in Wexford’s 1798 Insurrection. 

   “When things are slower in the cold weather we’ll fix them,” was the mantra; needless to say winter brought its own demands.

   My grandmother fiercely hoarded her stale bread; it would have been considered bad luck to throw it out for echoes of the Great Hunger still lingered in rural areas. And so every week she baked a bread pudding rich with raisins and sultanas. 

   This treat was tasty but nothing compared to her Queen of Hearts – a more refined bready concoction on whose top she added lashings of raspberry jam and a frothy soufflé - the like of which I have never experienced since.

   Much as I loved the farm I was raised mostly by my maternal grandfather - a widower and monumental sculptor by trade. He and my uncle lived in a big barracks of a house in the heart of Wexford town. A succession of housekeepers came and stormily departed before Miss Codd, a formidable spinster, took charge.

   She had been a parish priest’s housekeeper for many years and considered it a huge tumble down the social ladder to be employed by “a mere stonecutter.” As you might imagine from such scathing language ours was a turbulent household.

   However, since my grandfather and his intrepid housekeeper shared rural roots they were agreed on one thing – nothing should be wasted. We had no sheepdogs, and Miss Codd was no great confectioner, so we utilized a “pig man” to remove our discarded scraps of food.

   This occupation may seem somewhat quaint now but it was common enough back in Wexford town. Jackie Redmond was a prosperous breeder of pigs and once a week he emptied our “bucket of slops” into a vat placed in the back of his van.

   Despite his occupation Jackie was considered to be a gentleman. He was from a well-regarded Home Rule family and revered the memory of John Redmond, leader of that party in the British House of Commons.

   Now my grandfather had “very advanced” Republican sympathies, but both men were civil to each other. I suppose pig slops weren’t worth resurrecting old feuds. 

   After about a year or so I noticed that Miss Codd always had a cup of tea and some choice biscuits ready when Jackie made his weekly call. I put little pass on this at first as Jackie, despite his breeding and gentility, smelled like a walking abattoir six days of the week, while our housekeeper was beyond fastidious in all things.

   However, one Sunday morning I encountered Jackie escorting Miss Codd home from 11 o’clock mass. Our pig man was resplendent in his best three-piece suit and even from across the street I could detect the waft of Old Spice and Brylcreem. 

   Miss Codd, who always shopped in the best ladies establishments, was dressed to the nines in a well-cut tweed jacket and skirt, with a fuchsia blouse and a matching lavender silk scarf.

   I watched stealthily from behind a Morris Minor as they exchanged some banter and words of farewell outside my grandfather’s door. Then Jackie raised his felt hat and departed, his face creased in what I considered a speculative smile.

   It would have been a great match. A 60 year-old bachelor of means and a stylish spinster “of a certain age.” Alas, it never happened. 

   Was Miss Codd’s delicately honed sensibility unable to stomach the ubiquitous smell of pig slops, or was Jackie too set in his bachelor’s way? I dared not inquire. But one day the tea and choice biscuits were not on offer, and from then on Jackie shuffled in and out of the house in a far more businesslike manner.

   Isn’t it strange how many sepia-toned memories can surface when throwing out an innocent, stale half-loaf of bread?

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