Round and Round the Garden: Sheila leaves home
The face between her knees was bearded, smiling. ‘Just you relax,’ he said, ‘I’ll take care of everything.’ He’d done this before and said those words before and there was a gentle touch of weariness in his voice.
The nurse was still having trouble finding a decent vein for the IV. ‘Redheads,’ she muttered. ‘They’re always trouble.’ Embarrassed about the failed first attempt, she held Sheila responsible. At last, she stood up straight and nodded her head in a crisp salute. Sheila craned her neck to see. ‘Now,’ said the smooth voice through the beard. ‘Put your head back down and you’ll be asleep in a minute.’ She lay her head back on the pillow like she’d been told. Sheila’d heard that before about redheads; weaker blood vessels, bleed more easily.
She had no dreams, no images that haunted, believed she’d only lost her train of thought before she noticed that the bearded face was gone, that she was in a different room. Looking around she saw about a dozen other bodies lying under white sheets on trolleys. Most lay still; one or two groaned quietly, and one was throwing up noisily two or three places down. The sound splashed against the white-tiled walls and came back a strange, dead echo.
‘You’re in the recovery room,’ said a little cockney nurse with the stubble of plucked hairs joining her eyebrows. ‘How do you feel?
‘Nothing,’ said Sheila. ‘Nothing at all.’
‘No cramps? No nausea?’
‘Not unless you insist.’ Her hand was patted sympathetically all the same.
The little nurse came back twice to check Sheila’s pulse and blood pressure. She smelled of gas and disinfectant; everyone in here did.
‘Well, Irish,’ she said. ‘You’re doing fine’ and called through the open door for a wheelchair.
‘I can walk,’ Sheila assured her.
‘Hospital rules,’ she said with a smile.
‘For Jas’ sake,’ Sheila was getting sick of that bloody smile. ‘I’ll be a lot more comfortable standing than sitting.’
A round-faced Jamaican woman had arrived pushing the chair. ‘Come on, love, you don’ wan’ do me out of a job now, do you?’ She brought Sheila back to the room where, earlier, she’d waited her turn.
‘Jus’ you slip into bed now and rest,’ Sheila was told. ‘Sleep it off. You’ll feel better after.’
Left alone, Sheila turned to face a wall the colour of parchment, the colour of her knuckles against the edge of the bed. She’d been ordered to rest, but her insides were kicking out against it. Sleep it off. It was a funny phrase. Sleep it off. Slip off. Slough. Sluff.
Sleep it off. Saturday afternoon. Daddy on the easy chair in front of the dying fire. Although he wasn’t a small man, that chair always seemed to dwarf him with its great high wings and fat arms. He wasn’t an easy sleeper; he’d throw himself around in the chair and, occasionally, lash out at something unseen that held him down. ‘Ye cur,’ he’d say. ‘Ye bloody cur.’ Dwarfed and powerless.
The wheelchair scraped against the door as it was pushed through. Even though she kept her eyes closed, Sheila knew it was the Indian woman with the huge eyes and Brummie accent being brought back in. Daddy had gone to work in Birmingham when she was a kid and, when he was in a good mood, put on the accent for comedic effect. Didn’t sound so funny now. The Jamaican orderly settled her gently, assured her that everything would be alright after a little sleep, and left.
Sheila lay absolutely still and kept her eyes closed, staring through opaque, yellow lids at the fluorescent lights on the ceiling. She ought to have told Bryan. After all, he had a right. But every time she’d tried, she’d thought of that stupid look on his face when she’d told him she was pregnant. There were tiny spots of light on the inside of her lids and she watched them swimming in blind, endless circles until watching them made her head dizzy and her stomach sick. She screwed her eyes tight shut and sat up, breathing deeply from the disinfected air.
‘Are you alright?’ she asked the back in the bed opposite.
They’d come in together that morning. She’d been one of three women who’d stepped out of a black taxi in front of Sheila’s minicab; the other two were Spanish and looked confused and terrified. Welcome to London, thought Sheila, watching them emerge one by one and walk heavily to the doors of the clinic while she waited for her change on the pavement. Walking briskly behind them, she brushed aside the comments and pamphlets of the small knot of middle-aged men and women who tried to block her path in the name of righteousness. Consigned to hell for all eternity, she pushed through the doors and joined the short queue at the reception desk. The woman behind the desk pushed her trendy glasses further up her nose with a tired finger, wearied already at ten past eight with the clotted stream of women that would flow throughout the day past her desk.
Sheila gave her name, took her form, and went on in to the next room to join a handful of women scattered around on chrome and imitation leather chairs, filling out forms on round, glass-topped tables, their tight faces looking back up at them. One man sat fidgeting solicitously beside his partner, his hands fluttering fretfully from his face to her shoulder to the clutch of pamphlets he had collected on the way in, coming to occasional rest on his knee, or her knee, before fluttering away again. A youngwan in the corner looked about twelve.
The women were called in the order that their forms were completed. Blood was taken and urine sampled; sterile paper gowns were issued. As each woman appeared wearing one, she was directed down a corridor into a room with four beds, the luxury of private medicine, and told to wait until she was called. Sheila was the first in her room and sat on the bed nearest the door with her exposed back to the wall.
Next in was the Brummie, and the twelve-year-old, who turned out to be nineteen and had her mother waiting for her. The fourth bed was never filled. A few minutes later, the nurse with the monobrow came in and checked them all for loose jewellery, contact lenses, or dentures. Satisfied, she smiled and told them she’d be back to collect them when their turn came.
Sheila’s turn had come and gone and now it was all over and her head was swimming and the Brummie woman was curled up in a tight ball in her bed. And the kid was brought in, white-faced and wretched. She too curled up with her face to the wall.
‘How’re you feeling?’ Sheila asked.
‘Fine.’ The voice was so indistinct Sheila couldn’t tell which of them had answered her. She waited for a while, but nobody said anything else. Perhaps they were sleeping it off; they’d been told to sleep it off.
The cold, sick feeling in the pit of her stomach rose up to her throat and she swallowed against it. She tried lying down and taking long, steady breaths the way her mother had told her when she was a kid and got over-excited or dizzy or anything. Like that day on Westland Row station with the clatter of trains and strange people shouting things she didn’t understand. And she didn’t understand why it was so dark because she’d been to bed and got up again and it should be daytime now.
She’d tried to see Daddy in her head, but she couldn’t; all she could remember was he was very big and when he rubbed his face against hers it tickled and sort of hurt and she didn’t like it, but it made her laugh. Peter remembered him, but he was turned eight now and had nearly been in school when Daddy went away to England. He’d shown her a squiggly picture once and said that was England and we were here, but she didn’t understand because she was only in high babies. Peter said she could go to the big girls’ school in September and that was after Daddy came home and Daddy was coming home today.
Mammy’d said things’d be different when Daddy came home, and she’d see. And she’d told Mrs Mahon next door that Sheila was the apple of her Daddy’s eye, that she could do no wrong when he was there. She’d done something wrong yesterday. She’d jumped on one of Mammy’s flowers and broken it. It wasn’t really a flower; Mammy said it grew tomatoes but they were always green until they fell off and she didn’t see any reason why anyone’d care if it got broke, but Peter said Mammy’d kill her. She’d nearly been going to cry but she didn’t; then Peter said he’d fix it. He dug it up out of the ground and pulled off all the broken bits and then buried it again. Only it was smaller you’d never notice the difference. Probably if Mammy knew she wouldn’t have let her come to see Daddy, but she was here.
Then Mammy said you two wait there and I’ll be back and went over and talked to a man that Peter said wasn’t Daddy. It was starting to get light and Peter showed her where the sun was coming up. He held her hand very tight and she tried to pull her hand back because he was hurting her, but he wouldn’t let her. He said if she was good he’d let her look at the train tracks and then he took her over to the edge and she looked down and that was when she got dizzy and felt sick. Mammy said it was all her own fault for going that close to the edge and told her to take big breaths and she’d be alright.
And then the train came in and she kept trying to take big breaths but the noise of the train confused her. And Mammy said there he is there he is can you see him but she couldn’t; she looked at the windows on the train but what sun there was in the sky was shining on them and she could see nothing through the glass. And then the train stopped, and Mammy picked her up and said here he is coming now. And then Daddy came up to them and put his arm around the two of them and bent down to pick Peter up and kissed him and said ‘Jas, Maire, it’s great to be home and that’s no word of a lie.’ And his eyes were wet and shiny.
And then Mammy nearly let her go and she was slipping, and she cried ‘Mammy! Mammy!’ and sat up.
The Brummie woman was sitting up too and looking at her.
‘What’s the matter?’ she asked.
‘I’m sorry,’ said Sheila. ‘I must have been dreaming.’
The kid was watching her as well through raw, red-rimmed eyes.
‘You’re not from ‘ere, are ya?’ the Brummie woman asked.
‘No, I’m from Dublin.’
‘D’ja come over special?’
For a moment Sheila didn’t understand what she meant. And then, ‘Oh . . . no. I live here. In Stoke Newington.’
‘Is that near?’
‘Well, it’s on the other side of London.’
Sheila’s eyes were hurting her, and she rubbed at them with both fists.
‘It’s my first time in London,’ said the other woman. ‘I come down on the train from Birmingham last night.’
She was quiet again after that and when Sheila looked over she was looking wide-eyed at the floor.
‘Our Mom thinks I’m in Manchester visitin’ me sister. I almost died when she come with me to New Street to get the train, but it was OK ‘cos she can’t read English and I told ‘er this was the Manchester train.’
The silence took over again. Sheila drew her knees up to her chest and hugged them. She could never lie to her mother; she’d never been able to. As a kid she’d often heard her father say that Mammy was an angel, and she’d thought that gave her magical powers that she always knew the truth no matter what you told her.
Her mother wasn’t really the sort you could get close to, although you’d never doubt that she loved you. It was a fierce kind of love that left you feeling guilty because you could never live up to it; you’d never know how. Peter knew, of course; she hated that and she loved it in him. Sometimes she thought Peter knew what her mother wanted before she said anything, but he’d always have to explain it to her.
Her mother was always on the go. Except at the end of the afternoon when everything was done in the house and they were just waiting until Daddy came home to start the dinner. Then she’d be out in the back in the last of the sun, seeing to her plants. It was the only time Sheila ever remembered seeing her relaxed, kneeling on a bit of an old towel or something, pulling up the weeds or patting down the soil with her fleshy fingers. She’d seen pictures of her mother when she was young, before she’d been married, and she was blonde and slim and dressed to the nines. That was all gone now, but Sheila always thought she looked beautiful, crouched like that in the garden, her big, capable arms making things grow.
And then Daddy’d come home and there’d be a great commotion, getting the table set and the dinner picked up and rounding up the younger kids from wherever they were. They were never hard to find. You’d hear them before you saw them; they were always in the middle of the noisiest pack in the neighbourhood. By the time everything was done, Daddy’d already be at the table with his sleeves rolled up above his elbows and his face and hands shiny from soap, cutting bread at the table.
Sometimes they’d have to wait very late before Daddy came home and they could start dinner. She really wasn’t sure when they’d started eating without him some nights. And then it was every night, and he wouldn’t come home until they were in bed. She liked to remember Daddy when she was very young, before the other kids had come along. Not that she’d ever resented the kids, she loved them all, but they could be an awful nuisance sometimes—always running around under your feet. And the house was never free of their noise, barking at each other in play or whimpering when they wanted attention.
But it’d been different when there was only Peter and herself, right after Daddy came home from England. Then, after dinner, Daddy would tell them stories, fairy stories about beautiful princesses who were turned out by wicked stepmothers to work as goose girls or something, but they always married the handsome prince and lived happily ever after. And sometimes Daddy’d tell them stories about himself, about the war when he was a hero, about the skyscrapers he’d built in England, and about how he’d met Mammy and they’d married and got two beautiful babies and that was the best thing that ever happened to him in his life.
And then Mammy’d come in from the kitchen and let on to be cross and say, ‘Is that all you’ve time for, fillin’ their heads with lies and nonsense?’ But you could tell she was really pleased.
On the other hand, if two babies were beautiful, any more were nothing but trouble; at least that’s what it seemed like with the younger kids. She couldn’t really blame Daddy; they were an awful handful—Peter said they were barely housetrained. Daddy had little enough patience with any of them, but especially with Donal. Donal could be a very sullen child at times and he was always answering back, and Daddy’d say ‘Jas’, he’s a cheeky young pup. A bloody pup, that’s what he is.’ And Mammy’d come in and tell him to leave the child alone and not be calling him names, and Daddy’d tell her it was her fault, that she spoiled him, babied him too much.
‘If you were home more often,’ she’d said to him once, ‘maybe I wouldn’t have to try and be mother and father to him.’ And Daddy’d been in a bad mood for the rest of the night.
Sheila didn’t like listening to them fight, but it was worse when they stopped altogether; she couldn’t stand it then. She hated even being in the house. With her father never there and her mother fuming silently and Peter in the front room studying for exams, the only sound in the house was the yapping of the kids and that drove her mad.
And then, as if things weren’t bad enough, Granny Kearney had go and to die. They’d been at dinner the night Daddy came home with the news. He just stood there and spit it out.
‘Ah no,’ said Mammy. ‘Ah no.’
And then nobody said anything for a while, just stared at Daddy, and Daddy stared at the floor. Then he turned and walked out of the room and into the parlour, closing the door behind him.
There was something hard inside of the Sheila then, and she didn’t understand it. She knew everyone was looking at her because she’d been Granny Kearney’s favourite, and she was ashamed of herself because she couldn’t feel a thing. And that made her cry.
They made her go and see the corpse laid out, though she didn’t want to. Everyone said her granny looked lovely, but she didn’t; her hair needed a colour put in and her skin was waxy-looking, like a doll’s.
Everyone had always said she was the image of her granny. ‘Be the lord jasus,’ Mammy’d say to Daddy, ‘your mother’ll never be dead while that youngwan’s alive. The minute she was born and I saw the head of red hair on her, I knew there’d be trouble.’
Granny Kearney’s hair wasn’t red any more when Sheila knew her, except when she put that stuff into it that smelled funny and made it go orange. And she had a bit of an orange moustache too, but that was from the cigarettes she smoked. She chain-smoked Sweet Aftons until they were too small for her fingers and then she’d hold them with a hair clip and hold them just barely touching her lips and suck, her cheeks hollowing out with the effort.
She was a big woman—big-boned but not fleshy—and she loved a bit of a laugh. Everyone said Granny Kearney was great gas except Mammy and she never said anything about her at all if she could help it.
Sheila loved it when she could go and stay in her Granny’s because her Granny would let her away with things that her mother never would. And she told great stories about the old days when she was young and going out dancing and having secret boyfriends. And she used to work at the sewing for a man called Mr Epstein and he had a bit of a grá for her and she could get away with anything except being late for work. Sheila’s favourite story was the one about when she was running back to work up towards Dolphin’s Barn with her friend Kathleen Barrett and a wan they didn’t like. And Granny and her friend nearly died when the other girl’s knicker elastic broke; it was when they used to wear big drawers and they fell off at her feet. Granny said there were some fellas across the street jeering and whistling and didn’t your woman just step out of her knickers and keep running. Her granny was always good for a laugh.
Until she died. Sheila nearly hated the corpse she was made to kiss—the skin was a funny paper yellow colour, and she could see the veins underneath it. And when she put her lips to it, the skin felt funny and slid over the skull as if it wasn’t connected.
There were loads of people at the funeral that Sheila either didn’t recognise or didn’t want to and afterwards they all came back to the house. Mammy gave them paper-thin sandwiches, and there was sherry for the women and beer for the men. And Daddy had a bottle of Powers Gold Label whiskey stashed in the kitchen and he and a couple of other men’d slip out now and then and fill their glasses from it. And everyone got loud and started telling jokes. They said that would be the way Granny’d prefer it, that she’d always been the first to appreciate a bit of a laugh; but Sheila thought they were just saying that, that they didn’t really care.
Later on, she saw her father go into the parlour by himself and, after a while, she followed him in. He’d know what she meant; he always knew. She relied on that.
He was standing in front of the window, silhouetted against the early-evening sunshine, his back to her.
‘Daddy,’ she said, ‘can I come in?’
And she went over to him and touched his arm. When he turned around, he nearly fell over his own feet and his eyes were already glassy from drink.
‘Ah, there y’are,’ he said, ‘me little jewel.’ And the smell of whiskey off him would knock you rotten. Whatever it was she wanted to ask him had to wait until he reached down behind the piano for the Powers bottle and poured the last of it into his glass.
‘I had to bring it in here,’ he explained, ‘if I was to get any of it at all. That shower out there’d drink Lough Erne dry.’
‘Is that all they came for? The Gold Label?’
‘Ah now,’ he said. ‘Ah now. Sure ye need a little somethin’ at a time like this. I’ve had a drop meself, I don’t mind tellin’ ye.’ He winked at her. ‘ Y’know yourself.’
And for the first time since she’d heard the news about her granny, she cried real tears.
‘Take it easy,’ said her father. ‘Take it easy.’
But she couldn’t take it easy; her body wouldn’t stop. Her stomach heaved and contracted, and it was all she could do to keep from throwing up.
Her father made her lie down on the sofa.
‘Now, just you lie down there and take it easy. Just relax. Put your head down. I’ll take care of everything.’
After that, she could never see her father in the same way. She didn’t know whether he got old or what, but she thought she saw him shrinking; the sun didn’t shine where he stood for her any more. He’d lost his mother and Sheila tried to make it up to him, give him a bit of a laugh now and then. But it was never the same. She tried to be there to look after him when he needed it. When she started work, if he was short of money, she’d let him have a few bob. If he came home drunk, she’d bring him in and try and see that he got something to eat or a cup of tea inside him at least. And when he was in a mood to talk, she’d listen to his stories. In a way, the best part was he didn’t know how tragic he was; he believed his own lies. That must be a great gift.
But she knew. And her mother knew; she recognised it now in her mother’s face.
When he was ready, she’d help him get up the stairs to bed. And she’d lie in her own bed and listen to him stumble and fall about, and to her mother’s silence. Until it got to be too much for her and she up and moved to London, where she got her own big and airy flat in a Victorian house in Stoke Newington. And she’d lie awake at night, listening to her own silence, or maybe to the breathing of some man she’d recently been thrashing about with.
After a while, the man she listened to was always Bryan. Bryan was a working-class Dubliner like herself and was here in London studying architecture. He was a solid man, dependable. Sometimes his solidness embarrassed her, but at least you always knew where you were with him. He’d a way of making her relax, and that wasn’t easy. And at night, when she couldn’t sleep, he’d stroke her arm and tell her about his dreams, what he could build if she were behind him, and she’d slowly doze off.
It was on a night like that, when she was half asleep, that she suddenly said, ‘D’ja know what?’
‘D’ja know, Daddy was only thirteen when the war ended.’
A big hand touched her shoulder, and when she woke up it was the Jamaican orderly.
‘There’s tea or coffee and biscuits in the room down the hall,’ she said. ‘Put something in your stomach, make you feel better before you go home.
Sheila knew when she was being thrown out. She stood up and dressed slowly, her head still a bit light. Funny, the only thing that stood out clear in her mind was that tomato plant of Mammy’s she’d jumped on when she was a kid. She must ask her whether it ever grew again.