“How can anyone be so heartless?” the young nurses asked themselves again and again while attending to the frail woman in ward 9.
The patient had been hospitalized for weeks now, awaiting certain death as her illness was incurable.
Drifting in and out of consciousness, the woman’s words made little sense to the young nurses taking care of the woman´s physical needs. It seemed unbelievable that the woman was in her early fifties: she looked more like seventy.
In the three weeks she´d been there, nobody had visited or even inquired about her. The ambulanceman who´d brought her to the hospice, after a neighbour had called complaining about the smell from the flat above, assured the nurses that the woman’s family had been notified.
Pat, the Kerry nurse, had just come on duty. It was difficult for the young girl to work in this sad environment. No patient ever left the hospice but it was still sad for Pat to realize that the woman dying before her eyes had nobody grieving her.
As the young nurse gently sponged the bird-like frame of the poor soul, she sensed death was near. The tell-tale gurgling sound had already started. The nursing staff were well used to the sound. The call of death, some named it.
“Don’t worry,” Pat whispered to unhearing ears. “I’ll be here with you. You won’t be alone”
The doctor quietly left the ward to let the priest know it was time. While Sean waited for the clergyman, he listened to his wife’s arduous breathing. “Poor Clare”, he thought. “She´s had a hard life.”
Clare, the mother of his three children, had never been strong. Her pregnancies had taken a lot out of her. Out of eight, only three had gone full term and both of them knew they´d been lucky with those, given Clare’s history of ill-health.
Holding Clare´s hand, Sean thought of the three children waiting at home for news of their mother.
Eileen, the eldest, would be getting the tea ready for herself and her two younger brothers. Although she was only fifteen, she´d been taking care of the household for the last six months, since Clare had become too weak to tend to even the smallest chore in the house.
Her mother had made sure Eileen attended school every day as Clare wanted her children to have an education, though she was fully aware of the problems that Eileen was having at school. It was impossible for the girl to study and tend to the house at the same time. Eileen preferred cooking and cleaning to studying maths and geography. She was a very confident girl at home but it was a different matter outside.
Outside their four walls, Eileen found it hard to make friends as she was quite shy. Not being interested in playing ball, skipping or any of the games the other children on the street were always inventing, she was considered a bit odd by the other kids.
For the last two weeks, since her mother’s health had worsened, Eileen had taken on the role of mother, to the annoyance of her two younger brothers, who weren’t too happy taking orders from their sister.
Jimmy, thirteen, felt old enough to look after himself and didn’t take kindly to being told to come in for his tea, polish his shoes every night (sacred in the Walsh’s house) or bring in the coal for the fire, by someone two years his senior. “You’re not my mother, you know. I don’t have to do what you tell me,” he would fire back when Eileen told him to do something.
“Right then, when dad comes in and the fire’s gone out, we’ll see what happens. I don’t care.” Eileen knew that her father would go mad if the fire was out when he came home from being out all day. “When mum asked you to get the coal, you never refused”.
“That’s different. You’re my sister. I’ll go for the coal `cause I want to and not because you tell me to”. Then he would take the coal bucket and go out to the coal shed to fill it. He’d curse his sister but knew not to let the fire go out.
It was different with John. He was eleven. He missed his mother terribly although lately she´d often been in bed when he´d come home from school, worn out from her illness. He´d got used to rushing into her bedroom after flinging his schoolbag on one of the chairs in the sitting-room before giving her a detailed account of his day. He was a bright boy and loved showing any new drawing or writing he had done that day to his mother.
“When’s mam coming home?” he asked constantly.
“When she’s better,” was the answer he always got.
“Jamie told me that when his auntie May went into hospital coughing up blood, she never came home. I heard dad talking to uncle Joe last week and he said that mam was coughing up blood. Does that mean she won’t come home?” Joe looked at his sister and his big brown eyes began to fill up.
“Don’t you mind that know-all Jamie Burns. Sure didn’t dad tell us yesterday that mam was getting better?” Eileen turned back to the pot of stew (their weekday meal) and continued stirring.
“Then why can’t we go into see her in hospital?”
“You know why. Kids aren’t allowed into that place. It’s only for adults. Anyway, mam will be home soon. Go out and play. I’ll call you when the tea is ready.”
John rubbed his eyes and went out to where some boys of his own age were playing conkers. He took his own out of his trouser pocket and waited in line. John’s conker was the hardest on the street and soon he´d forgotten all about the fright Jamie had given him as he smashed his conker against the softer ones his friends had on their strings.
Back in the kitchen, Eileen thought about what Jamie had told John. Although Eileen wasn’t a good student, she was no fool. She realized her mam was very ill. She saw the look in her father’s eyes when he came home after visiting her mam. It was a look of despair: deep sadness. Although her father tried to hide it from her and the, Eileen sensed that her mother might never come home from the hospital. In that way she was far older than her years.
Sean looked at Clare’s pale face and wondered why God had been so unfair to her. According to Clare, everything good or bad that happened in their lives, was God’s will. Until she got sick, she´d never missed mass on Sundays. She was a kind, caring person and would never say a bad word about anyone.
She´d been in a coma now for three days and the doctor had told Sean that it was a matter of days before the inevitable happened. In one way Sean was content to know that her suffering had finally come to an end. However, he couldn’t imagine life without Clare. He couldn’t remember a time when she wasn’t part of his life.
Although he´d been preparing himself, when the priest entered the ward to give Clare the last rites, Sean started to shake and felt a lump in his throat. This wasn’t the first time he´d felt himself breaking down but it was the first time he´d lost control in a public place.
Sean, always one for appearances, didn’t want to break down in tears in the middle of a hospital, even under the circumstances. He could grieve Clare later in the privacy of his own bedroom.
As the priest finished making the sign of the cross over Clare’s still body, she took her last breath. It was as if she knew she was being welcomed into the paradise of heaven.
“She’s at peace now.” The priest touched Sean’s shoulder and smiled sadly. “Go home to your children. They need you. We’ll look after Clare and prepare her for tomorrow.”
Sean, dazed, turned and walked out of the ward. It was late. The boys would be in bed but Eileen would be still up getting the table set for tomorrow’s breakfast.
He crossed the road to the bus-stop opposite the hospital building. He knew he’d be waiting some time for his bus to appear. The bus service wasn’t the best at this time of night. Checking his watch, he saw it was 10,15pm. He would have to ask Tim, his elderly neighbour, to use the telephone. There were calls to make.
He surprised himself with these thoughts.
Since Clare had gone into a coma, Sean, every evening for the hour he stayed with her, knowing she wasn’t going to regain consciousness, had thought of how he would react when this moment finally came. He realized he was a lot calmer and much more in control that he´d ever thought he´d be.
He reckoned it was because of the children.
He knew had to be strong for them.
“Tim. Sorry to disturb you so late.”
Sean knew he hadn’t got Tim out of bed as he´d opened the door immediately.
“Come in, Come in.” Tim opened the door wider to allow Sean step into the dark hall. “Is it your missus?” Tim asked knowingly. They´d been neighbours since Sean and Clare had come to live next door to him ten years previously.
Tim liked them. They´d kept to themselves and never abused the telephone, not like those O’Connor’s on the other side of him. Tim was the only one on the street with a phone installed. He didn’t mind letting some folk use it, in emergencies only, mind you but some people could really push it sometimes.
Sean followed Tim into the kitchen, where he´d been listening to the radio and having a cup of tea. “How is she?” Tim sat down and invited Sean to do the same, but Sean didn’t accept the offer.
“She’s gone,” he looked at the older man. “Her suffering is over.”
Tim took a few moments. “I know it’s hard for you but it’s for the best, Sean. The poor girl had it tough these last few months. That coughing had her worn out. It reminded me of my Mary, God rest her soul.” He blessed himself and went on. “At least she was spared from having a bad end, going into that coma.”
“Yea, I suppose we should be thankful for that.” Sean didn’t feel thankful at all. He didn’t want to be a 38- year-old widower with three kids to look after alone. “Father Pat said he’d have her in the church early in the morning for the young ones to see her before closing the coffin and saying the twelve o´clock mass for her.”
“I’ll be there to pay my respects,” nodded Tim. “She was a grand girl, your Clare. Before she got ill, she’d always call in on the way to the shops to see if I was needing anything.”
Clare was always thinking of others.
Even when the coughing got really bad, she’d be up getting the kids off to school when she should have been resting. But then, there was no-one she could call on to help her out. She had no family and Sean couldn’t risk taking time off work, in case he’d be let go. Jobs were scarce in Dublin and Clare considered herself lucky having a husband earning a wage and being able to dress and feed her family. She’d always remind Sean of that fact when he’d complain about the money being scarce.
Clare had managed the money. Every Friday evening, Sean had given her his wage packet and she´d set about putting a little amount away for food for the week, for the rent of the corporation house they lived in, and she´d always managed to save a few shillings to buy clothes and shoes every now and again for the kids. Sean hoped that now things had changed he’d be able to budget his money as well as she had.
“You’ll be wanting to use the phone, won’t you?”
“Sorry?” Sean shook his head.
“The phone,” Tim repeated.
“Jesus, Tim. I’m not with it. Of course. That’s why I’m here. I need to get in touch with my brother Joe so he can let the job know that I won’t be in until Monday. He’ll look after sending the word around about Clare’s death. He knew it was only a matter of time so he’ll be expecting the call. I won’t be long.”
“Take as much time as you need. I’ll just put the kettle on and make us a pot of tea.” Tim got up slowly and went to fill the kettle.
“No, thanks. Young Eileen will be up waiting for me and it’s getting very late. I’ve taken up enough of your time already. I’ll be off in a minute and you can go to bed yourself.” He picked up the receiver and dialled Joe’s number.
Tim put the kettle down. He was tired. He´d been about to go to bed when he´d heard the bell ring, but he still didn’t want poor Sean to go without offering him a cup of tea. To be honest, he was more than happy that Sean refused his offer. Tomorrow would be a long day. Tim only left the house these days to go to mass or attend a funeral, the latter being quite often lately as he was getting on in years and many of his friends and relations were departing from this life.
Sean hung up. He thanked Tim, shook his hand hard and left the house.
Eileen heard her dad turn the key in the door. She looked at the clock on the wall in the kitchen. It was after midnight. That wasn’t a good sign. She had fallen asleep while waiting for her dad to arrive home.
“So, you’re still up? You should be in bed. Look at the time.” Sean hung his coat on one of the hooks on the wall of the hall. The door of the kitchen was open and he could see Eileen rubbing her eyes as she looked at the clock.
“You’re really late tonight.” Eileen was taking a plate from the press to fill with some stew she´d made for dinner.
“Leave that, love. I’m not hungry. Sit down for a minute. I’ve something to tell you.” Sean sat on one of the chairs at the oval table, still set for dinner.
“It’s mam, isn’t it?” Eileen sat on the edge of the chair. “She’s not coming out yet, is she?”
“No, Eileen. Your mam won’t be coming home.” Sean looked into his fifteen year old daughter’s eyes and Eileen, who normally had the poise of a much older person, suddenly seemed very young and insecure. “You know your mam has been extremely ill and suffering a lot.”
Eileen nodded and her eyes started filling up. She already knew what she was about to be told.
“God didn’t want to see your mam suffer anymore and tonight He came for her and has taken her to heaven to be with your grandparents.”
“But I didn’t say goodbye to her,” Eileen sobbed.
“You can say goodbye tomorrow. We’ll go to the church and you’ll see her. She’s at peace now.” Sean tried to find words to console his daughter but he never was very good at expressing himself and he was having difficulty trying to say the right thing.
Maybe he should have taken the children into the hospital to see Clare more often but she´d looked terrible the last few days with all the tubes stuck in her. Both he and Clare wanted the children to remember their mother looking as she did before she´d gone in. They´d spoken about it.
“Was mam in pain before she…?” Eileen couldn’t say the word. It was too painful. She took a hanky out of her pocket and gave her nose a good blow.
“No, love. Your mam was in a deep sleep for the last few days. She didn’t feel anything.” Sean stood up. “Come on. It’s time you were in bed. We’ve a long day ahead of us tomorrow. Uncle Joe and aunty Joan will be here early in the morning to give a hand getting things sorted.”
Sean turned off the light. Eileen went through the small sitting-room and walked up the narrow staircase. Her room was next to her brothers’. She looked in and saw that the boys were fast asleep in their bunk-beds. She went back into her room and without changing out of her school uniform and putting on her pyjamas, she lay on her bed and wept into the pillow.
The family got through the next couple of days as if they were living a dream. The house was always full of neighbours, relations and other people the children hardly knew.
“You mean you don’t remember me? Sure, I’m your dad’s cousin from Cavan,” one tall, skinny man said to Eileen on the day of the funeral.
“Didn’t your mam look only gorgeous?”
Eileen couldn’t remember which of the women said that.
“Wasn’t it a grand day for a funeral?” another said as she poured tea for yet another person who Eileen didn’t know and didn’t want to know.
Eileen only wanted everything back to normal. She knew she could take care of her father and brothers without the help from anyone. The boys, she knew, didn’t know if they were coming or going. Everything had happened so fast, but maybe that was for the best, that way they didn’t have time to miss their mother.
She looked across at her father who was busy making sure that all the neighbours and relations had a cup of tea in their hand or a glass of something, whether it be stout or whisky. Irish funerals were all the same. It was the custom to invite anyone who paid their respect to the deceased into your home. They´d just have to get through it.
It was four days since Clare had passed away, though it seemed much longer after the hectic weekend.
Eileen got up, went into the kitchen to prepare breakfast before waking her brothers and started putting things on a tray to take into her mam in bed, when she suddenly stopped. It dawned on her. “My God,” she said to herself. “What am I doing?”
She took the jug of milk and sugar bowl off the tray and put them on the table. She allowed herself a tearful moment before pulling herself together. “Come on now, Eileen”, she reprimanded herself. “You’re the mam of the house now.”
She finished making the toast and tea before shouting up at the boys to get up.
Sean went back to work.
As always, he clocked in at 7.30am in the sorting office. After thanking everyone for saying how sorry they were for his bereavement, he went to his desk and starting sorting through the pile of letters, parcels and documents which were to be put into different bundles according to their postal address.
He was thankful for the workload he had on the table. It would take him hours to get through the lot and therefore keep his mind off Clare.
Everything ran smoothly for the next few months. The boys now accepted Eileen taking on the role of a mother. She wasn’t overbearing and never reprimanded her brothers when they misbehaved: she left that to their dad. Although the boys were very young and got up to mischief like all youngsters, they were generally well mannered and adored their sister.
Eileen even started to feel more confident and was doing better at school. This had a lot to do with her new English teacher, who encouraged Eileen to write more.
Miss Cullen, a young, enthusiastic teacher, saw Eileen as she really was. This young girl, more efficient and competent than many mothers when it came to running a house was in fact void of all self-esteem in the outside world, she knew. Eileen was unable to participate in the normal conversations of her classmates, but would listen shyly to the other girls talk about what they got up to at the weekend.
With Miss Cullen´s help, Eileen started writing a diary.
Every night before going to sleep, she took her little diary, which was a birthday present from her dad, and wrote down her thoughts, concerns and worries of the day.
At first, she used to write only a few words. It was difficult but challenging. But after a few weeks she was filling pages every day.
Everybody began to notice little changes in Eileen. She was a lot chattier around the house and with the neighbours. She even joined a club, which Miss Cullen had set up, on Friday evenings in the local hall.
Every Friday, some girls, whom the teacher had selected, got together to start a workshop. At first they learnt flower arranging, painting and typing but Miss Cullen was open to suggestions and soon they were making the costumes for the school play. These activities were very positive for Eileen. She was in her element. She couldn’t wait for Fridays to come and soon became a favourite with the other girls in the club.
Sean was delighted with the change in his daughter. He´d started feeling guilty coming home from work to find Eileen behaving like a mother, ironing his shirts and cleaning up after the tea. The boys and himself did their share in the house but Eileen always acted as if the house was her responsibility.
Now, things had changed. Eileen still did more than enough but her attitude had changed. Saturdays were different. Instead of dusting and cleaning, she was out with her friends from the club.
Sean started feeling more relaxed. Ten months had passed since Clare’s death. School was finishing for the summer and the weather was behaving itself. Young John had been in shorts for the last month but, then again, he never felt the cold. Jimmy said he was too old for shorts. Thirteen going on fourteen, he had a mind of his own. Sean knew that if Jimmy had made up his mind not to wear shorts that Summer, the sun could be splitting the trees, but you wouldn’t see the lad in his shorts.
Sean thought about his two boys and realized how lucky he was. They never gave him any trouble. They were good kids and always looked out for each other.
Sean could feel his mind drifting, and suddenly he began thinking of Mary. Mary was a young girl from the country who had started work in his department the previous month.
Sean, almost forty years old, had noticed the signs.
Modestly, Sean regarded himself a handsome man. He was tall and fit as he walked the three miles home from work every day, weather permitting. Although he was going grey, he had a good head of hair, which many of his friends envied. But he was a widower with three kids so why was Mary giving him the eye? She was a lovely girl, but way too young for him. He wasn’t certain, but he heard someone in the office say she had just turned twenty-four.
He lay back on the bed and covered his eyes. Mary was there.
About the author:
Antoinette was born in Dublin in 1959. She grew up on a stud farm in the north side of Dublin where there was never a quiet moment in the full house.
Being one of eight children, Antoinette was always surrounded by siblings and friends. She recalls weekday dinners at her childhood home being full of chit chat. There would always be one or two extra settings at the table for classmates. Everyone was always welcome there.
As she holidayed in the south of Spain as a child, she got a love for the language and decided to move to Madrid when she finished her studies. In the ’80s, she lived between Dublin and Madrid, but in 1990 she decided to make Madrid her home and has been living there ever since.
She set up her academy, Dublin School of English, in 1996 where she continues teaching. She is also a Cambridge examiner.
Antoinette is married and has two sons. This is her first novel.
She can be contacted at email@example.com