The small birds had been at Mrs Mulcahy’s window each morning for the last five days. Sitting atop the sill by the open window, they sang out to her bed, never daring to enter the room unless she willed it.
‘There’s the bold robin,’ she said as the dawn light moved across the window and cast a beam by her bedside locker.
She slowly shifted herself upwards, reached towards the top drawer and unfurled the last of the pan loaf.
The birds recognised the crinkle of the grease paper and hopped gleefully towards her. But the robin gave a furtive cry and flew off.
Mrs Mulcahy shrugged and stiffly let some crumbs fall to the floor.
Frances Riordan had watched this procession each morning with great interest; it had become something she looked forward to after the long night-duty shift. She quietly announced herself and moved closer.
‘How are you this morning, Nan?’
‘Frances, how are you?’ she replied, and offered her hand in welcome.
‘I see the little fellas are in again,’ said Frances, indicating the small birds.
‘Ah, but they’re great company to me. You’d not tell the matron, would you?’
‘It’s our little secret, Nan. The matron is never in before eight.’
‘I wouldn’t want to upset her.’
‘No,’ agreed Frances.
‘You’ll have the shift over soon?’
‘Another few hours.’
‘Any accidents at the casualty?’ asked Nan, who liked to be up on the news of the day.
‘No, it was a quiet night. We had a small tinker child come in with a bad chest but the doctor sent him home. I didn’t have to go down really. Will you have a cup of tea?’
Mrs Mulcahy assented and Frances left the room and walked back down the corridor to the kitchen. The halls were quiet save the sticky peel of her shoes on the lino floor.
Mount Bridget sat at the far end of town, and was made up of the local casualty and the geriatric hospital. The scattering of buildings had been a part of her life for ten years now. Sister Loyola, the matron of the geriatric hospital, had hired her on her return from England with the agreement that she work hard, pray when was needed and treat the patients with respect, helping out with the casualty when required.
They were simple commandments.
Pat, the attendant, was finishing her breakfast when Frances entered the kitchen. The woman stirred from the depths of a faraway thought and smiled a tired smile.
‘Nearly there,’ she said, and wiped her eyes.
Frances asked that a start be made to the morning teas, and that Pat bring a mug to Nan. She took a place at the staff table and began to fill out the log notes for the previous night. The patients had all slept soundly. Brid Doherty had faded yet again and her breathing grown more shallow. She was returning to her youth with each breath now reminding anyone who listened to make sure her good dress was clean before her daddy came to pick her up. They were off to Leitrim for Monaghan Day.
She had begun to clutch her rosary beads more tightly now, never letting them stray. Exhaling Aves and Glory Bes. She would hardly make it to the weekend.
By eight, Frances had begun the breakfast rounds, the milkman had arrived and the morning bustle was under way. Sister Loyola appeared at the staffroom door, quickly looked over the log and invited Frances to join her on her morning round.
‘A pleasant night, Frances?’
‘It was fine, Matron.’
Sister Loyola’s small habit billowed slightly as they walked through the day room. She called on patients who had been ill or fading. Knocking on the door, she would greet them with the early morning. As she lifted a blind or checked a bedpan, she made each feel taken care of.
At Maura Haney’s bedside she sat down.
‘You’re settled now are you, Maura?’
‘I am, Matron, surely. The garl brought me in a grand cup of tea and toast.’
‘And how is the leg?’ asked the sister, slowing lifting the bedcovers to examine her amputated limb.
‘It’s not paining me so much now.’
The matron checked the bandages, gave a gentle sniff and agreed.
‘Good, and you’ll be sure to come up out of the room today, Maura.’
‘For a bit, for a bit,’ agreed Maura.
‘You need to be out of bed and get some short exercise. I’ll have one of the girls come help you later.’
‘Thank you, Matron. I’m sorry.’
The sister fixed the bed sheets and the pair left the room.
Those who could rise and walk were escorted to the breakfast hall. Mary-Anne Collins worked quickly in the kitchen to dish out the fried eggs and toast for those who wanted it. She was a great worker though spoke little. She had come from a Magdalene laundry in Limerick as a young woman and had lived among the sisters all her life. There had been a child, though she never spoke of it.
Within the hour they had finished their round.
‘It’s a comfort when you’re on, Frances,’ said the matron as they took a breath of fresh air. ‘The place is always glowing,’ she added and gave her a smile.
‘Thank you, Matron.’
The pair enjoyed the calm morning and looked out to see the town slowly come to life. The doctors had arrived at the casualty wing facing the geriatric hospital and the previous night’s shift of ambulance men were getting ready to go home and rest. Peter the caretaker was shuffling around the grounds with a ladder under his oxter and a fag in his mouth.
‘Were you called down to casualty, Frances?’
‘No, there was no ambulances last night.’
‘Good. I wish . . .’
‘I wish the Health Board might find the money to bring in a few more night-duty people. What if when you were on a call we had an emergency here?’
‘I thought they said the cutbacks were only for a short time, Matron.’
‘That could be years, child. I’ll have to bring it up to the Mother Superior when I get a chance.
‘How long have you been doing these night shifts now, Frances?’
‘Three months, Matron.’
‘And do you like it?’
‘It’s better money and Noel is able to get the children to bed now that they’re older.’
‘It won’t be forever.’
‘No, Sister, hopefully not. If the factory takes on a few more people he would be set again. There’s not nearly enough for him in the few acres.’
‘There never is.’
‘God is good, I suppose,’ said Frances.
‘God is everywhere, but He gave us our lot to do too. Don’t forget that.’
Morning Mass was under way as Frances packed her things, clocked out and walked to the car park.
The weekdays were a race to get home and see the children off. The radio was on as she walked in the kitchen and found Noel quizzing the child on her Irish spellings for the day’s test.
‘Brón,’ he said.
‘Good,’ said Noel. ‘And what’s that?’
‘That’s sad, Daddy,’ said Anne, with a smile on her face.
‘And what about this fella? Madra? Can you spell that one?’
‘Mhaith an cailín. It’s a scholar we have here, Frances,’ said Noel as he gave the child a kiss and packed away her things.
‘It’s that, all right.’
She picked up the child and gave her a kiss.
‘Now spot-check on you and Daddy. Are the teeth washed?’
Anne was silent and turned into her mother’s chest.
‘Get down and brush them teeth, ya nuck.’
‘Where is Con?’
‘Just out looking at the new calf.’
‘She calved?’ asked Frances.
‘She did,’ said Noel. ‘He helped me and all.’
When the children were safely packed in the back of the small Nissan, she drove them to primary school. She was tired now and thought only of her few hours of sleep; a few hours’ break from it all.
Noel was out in the fields when she returned. Some porridge had been left out on the table but she could not find the taste on her and instead went straight to bed.
Her dreams were interrupted occasionally by the sound of the cow and her newborn calf from the outhouse sheds. A low bellow would crinkle the folds of her mind and then seconds later it would be answered from some other shed in the distance.
The alarm sounded at two. She began to wash and peel the potatoes Noel had left by the door. Soon the kitchen rattled with the steamy blow of pots and pans. Frances set the table and then returned to the bedroom to get dressed.
It would be another long day. The children arrived home in a flutter of copy books and laughs.
‘How was school, Con?’
‘Fine,’ he said, as he quickly ate the bacon and potatoes she placed in front of him.
‘Mammy! I got all my spellings right,’ shouted Anne.
She looked at them both and smiled. As tired as she was from these nights, the children were worth any effort, any strain.
Noel returned from the fields an hour later and sat down to his dinner.
‘How was work, Daddy?’ Anne enquired.
‘It was fine.’
‘Did you get the top fields fenced off from the cows?’ asked Con, as he muddled through his maths homework.
‘I did. I’ll need you to help me get that young heifer over to the rented field.’
‘We’ll have to borrow the trailer from Uncle Paul, so.’
‘We won’t. We’ll walk her down the road.’
‘Didn’t she break on us the last time? Can’t we get the trailer, Da?’
‘We’ve enough begging and borrowing done for a while. Paul needs that trailer.’
‘Sure, what would he mind Da, hasn’t he two?’
‘I said no.’
The boy grew quiet and fixed himself harder on his homework.
‘We’ll all help you move her, Noel,’ said Frances, in an attempt to ease things.
‘Aye, might be best.’
‘I’ll stop the cows,’ shouted Anne.
‘You’ll finish your homework first.’
‘It’s not that hard anyway, Mammy. I’m nearly done.’
At three the family walked out to the upper ground in search of the lost heifer. Anne wore her bright pink wellingtons, kicking up the dust and puddles as she moved. She ran in fits and stops, excited at the thought of the whole family out in the grass.
Con walked ahead, stooping low and looking at the ground.
‘He’s growing up isn’t he?’ Frances said to Noel.
‘He is, and getting a mind of his own.’
‘You should let him lead her down the road. It’ll make him happy to know he’s the little man today.’
Noel thought for a moment and nodded in agreement.
They found her in the corner of the garden field, stretched out in the afternoon sun. Ringed around her, the daisies and buttercups were in full bloom. The white down of the thistle flowers floated gently in the air, parachuting their way to new ground.
‘Now watch her,’ said Noel quietly as he gestured his stick towards the heifer. ‘She’s a wild bitch. Mammy, you and Anne mind that gap. Con, I’ll ring round here and you drive her out.’
The party disbanded and quietly took their places. Anne held Frances’s hand as they stood poised and ready.
‘Look, Mammy, a flower for you,’ said the child, and held up a broken clump of wild broom. The yellow flowers fell to the ground delicately as she waved it in the breeze.
‘That’s lovely,’ she said, and focused her attention on the animal.
Con moved slowly towards her. The heifer gently rose to her feet and with a sudden panic darted for the gap.
‘She’s coming, Mammy, she’s coming!’
The heifer bore down upon Frances in full flight, seeing only the break and opportunity. Frances pushed Anne and began to shout and wave her rubber stick.
The heifer slowed her pace and sniffed at the broken broom and its flowers on the ground.
‘She likes it, Mammy,’ said Anne, and laughed.
She moved towards the heifer, but at that the beast was gone again, throwing up sods of grass as she galloped through the field. Con moved in behind her now and steadily drove her towards
‘C’mon, hup, hup, ya girl,’ he called.
By the second meadow her spirits had calmed and she pushed towards the gate. Noel ran to the road and slowed the oncoming traffic.
Frances took the child’s hand and they followed the group.
By Trapp’s old house on the corner, the heifer slowed and tore the sweet grass from the verge. Noel ran ahead of the beast. He quietly opened the roadside gate of the rented field and stood ready to turn her in.
Con moved with confidence now and hushed the beast towards his father.
‘C’mon, c’mon, that’s the girl,’ he said, and praised her for her calmness.
‘Mammy, I’m tired,’ said Anne.
‘Hang on, we’re nearly there,’ Frances said gently.
‘I’m tired,’ Anne repeated, and stopped walking.
Without taking her eyes from the heifer, Frances picked up the child with a sigh and continued walking. Two cars had gathered to their rear and were waiting patiently for the animal to leave the road. The day was sunny and warm and they did not seem to mind the delay.
Slowly the heifer moved towards the final bend and with a gentle trundle ran into the field and buck-leaped through the grass.
Noel quickly closed the gate and waved the cars on. ‘Couldn’t have went better.’
‘Right enough,’ Con replied, imitating his father’s style.
The family stood leaning out over the worn gate, gazing at the field and sweet young grass.
‘Would you ever buy this field, Da?’ asked Con.
‘I might,’ said Noel, smiling at his wife.
‘In time,’ Frances said, and ruffled her son’s hair.
‘And you, were you on this job at all?’ Noel said to Anne.
‘I was working,’ she said confidently.
‘Ho ho, I don’t know if you were. Didn’t I see you trying to give the cow flowers?’
‘Those were for Mammy.’
‘I think they were for the cow,’ said Noel, who picked her up and carried her home, a pink wellington dangling loosely from a foot as the pair joked.
Frances and Con walked back towards the house together. ‘You did a right job, Con.’
The boy nodded quietly.
‘Daddy will drop you to training this evening,’ she said.
‘We’ve the match on Friday.’
‘I know. You can call me at work and tell me how it went.’
At home she rested for a time in bed again, counting the minutes before sleep came. She closed her eyes eventually and listened to the children playing in the yard.
Seven o’clock was not long in coming and her alarm sounded again. She washed herself quickly, put on her uniform and applied a layering of light lipstick. Then she walked into the dining room to say goodbye for another night.
The children were watching television and at the sight of her got to their feet.
‘You’re off, so,’ said Noel.
‘Mammy, can I call you tonight before bed?’ asked Anne.
‘Now bed early and don’t be acting the bousy on Daddy.’ She kissed them both and the family walked her out to the car, waving her off.
The town was littered with tricolours and bunting in ready excitement for the next World Cup match. You could not help but be swept up in the frenzy of it all. She stopped by the Esso station, bought a frozen curry for her dinner and glanced over the day’s papers. Jack Charlton smiled out across the headlines. He was a fine man for an Englishman.
The evening sun waned out by the hill of Mount Bridget’s as she moved up the driveway. The crows were returning to the rookery.
She signed in and went to see the matron before starting.
‘Hello, Matron,’ she began, after opening the door.
‘Frances, come in,’ said Sister Loyola distractedly. She hurried the last of her writing before closing her notebooks. ‘Now my child,’ she began. ‘Is it that time already, another day over?’
‘It’s that time, Matron.’
‘Well let me see, Brid Doherty is very low. I’ve told the father to be ready to come this evening. The other patients are fine, we had a good few visitors today so the spirits are high.’
‘I’m glad to hear that.’
‘And the casualty called already. They think they’ll be busy in the next few days with the World Cup match, so be on your toes.’
‘I will, Matron,’ she replied.
‘Well that’s it all, you know the rest.’
Frances excused herself from the office and made her way to the staffroom to deposit her things in the locker. She left her frozen curry on the draining board. It would be a welcome treat this night, better than any sandwich.
She began to make her rounds, visiting the patients in the day room.
‘Ah, Frances, I’m up, see I’m up?’ said Maura Haney, gesturing towards her wheelchair.
‘Well, that is a welcome sight.’
She sat in the room for a while and enquired of the day’s events. The pensions had been paid and the women clutched their handbags close to their chests. Those few pounds made all the difference to their pride.
Peter Cadam proudly walked down the hall in his old black blazer. The new attendant stood and blocked his way.
‘I asked the matron, I asked the matron,’ he said.
‘She didn’t tell me,’ the girl insisted, making herself wide.
Frances walked towards Peter and touched his shoulder. ‘What’s the matter, Peter?’
‘I asked the matron, and I wanted to go for me pint,’ he explained.
‘You see,’ said the young girl, ‘he’s raving; the matron would never let a patient go out unattended.’
Frances paused and looked at the mockery on the girl’s lips. She who tucked the patients in too tight, she who cared not a fig if they wet the bed in the night. She who had no nature.
‘I’m sorry to say, Maeve, but Peter can do whatever he pleases, he’s here under his own care. Is it Quinn’s you’re going to, Peter?’ Frances enquired.
‘It is, just me two pints of a Friday.’
‘And Madge is picking you up?’
‘Well you tell her I asked for her,’ she smiled. ‘We’ll see you before bed.’
With that, Cadam walked slowly out the hallway and through the front door, leaving the smell of his Brylcreem behind in the air.
Maeve walked away sullenly. She would learn patience, Frances thought. She would learn patience or she would see the road.
By eight the evening tea was served, a simple fried rasher and toast, which none refused.
She called round the various rooms, helping the patients get dressed, cleaning bedpans and turning down covers.
Walking down the corridor she could hear the Bradys call out to one another from across the hall.
‘Packey, Packey,’ the voice called.
‘What do you want, woman?’ came the response.
‘Are you bringing the cows in this morning?’
‘Didn’t I bring them in already? It’s out from the parlour they’ll be going,’ he replied.
Frances stood in the hallway listening to the elderly couple’s chat. It was the same each evening, both as senile as one another. They would never forget home.
She tended Mrs Brady first and found her settling into bed.
‘Frances, how are you?’ she asked lucidly.
‘I’m fine, Mrs Brady. Are you all set for the evening?’
‘Yes, yes,’ she said, and tucked her purse and rosary beads under her pillow.
‘How are the children? We haven’t seen Con in an age,’ she said.
‘He’s busy with his father on the farm.’
‘A good place to have him.’
Frances helped her adjust her head upon the pillows and placed the blankets around her small frame.
She gave her the tablets and a glass of water to swallow them down.
‘Give me a call if you need anything else.’
‘I will, I will surely,’ she agreed.
As Frances moved towards the door, Mrs Brady turned to her anxiously.
‘Will you tell Packey to put the kettle on for the tea?’ she said, and with that her sharpness of mind was gone once again.
‘Nurse Frances knows you’re to have the pot on,’ she shouted towards the wall.
‘Haven’t I it sitting steeping for you?’ came Packey’s reply a moment later.
Frances smiled and left the room, checked on Packey and continued her rounds. It was a great comfort that they had one another. For no one else called to see them. They were forgotten people, as the matron described them. Forgotten people yes, but they refused to forget themselves.
Frances moved past the oratory and down the single corridor. The evening sun shone through in a glow of red and hazel to illuminate the stained-glass windows and blinds.
Brid Doherty was indeed as low as the matron had said. Her breathing was laborious and strained. Frances wet a cloth and daubed her forehead, cleaning the dried skin from her face. The rosary beads were clutched between her thin fingers and she could pass at any moment. The priest had heard her last confession; there had been little to confess, Frances imagined. A life lived in simplicity in this rural setting. She never had enough money to do the wrong thing.
She wiped her face once again and thought of how she had washed her own children in the same gentle manner. The room took on a quiet calm as Frances watched over her, Brid’s chest rising and falling.
Frances sponged her dry lips which now gasped for air, wetting the cracks. It was a scene Frances had experienced many times. Sometimes there had been a fight, a reluctance to let go, but in the end there was always peace.
Brid had no one to sit with her tonight. Her son was on the way from London with his wife, but it might be too late. Frances would come and see her again before the shift was out. And keep a vigil should Brid slip away unseen.
Frances checked her watch and marked the time; it would not be long.
A knock came at the door and she turned to see the face of Mary-Anne Collins.
‘A phone call for you, Francie,’ said Mary-Anne shyly.
‘Can you sit with Brid?’
‘But . . . I’m no nurse, what if something happens?’
‘It’s not a nurse she needs now but company,’ explained Frances, and she led Mary-Anne by the hand to the bedside.
‘What will I do?’
‘It doesn’t matter.’
Frances rested a hand on her shoulder to reassure her, then left on her way. The receiver sat off the hook on the staffroom’s table.
‘Mammy!’ cried Anne.
‘Ah hello, and how are you?’
‘We’re great, Mammy. You said I could call so I wanted to call – is it OK?’
‘It’s more than fine,’ she laughed. ‘Is Con back from the match?’
‘He is, he’s just having a bath.’
‘He’s watching telly. The Late Late is on.’
‘Oh, very good. You’re ready for bed, so?’
‘Yeah, but Daddy said I could stay up till half past.’
‘So long as you’re in bed on the dot.’
‘OK, well I have to get back to work now, love.’
The child sighed and agreed, but as Frances moved to replace the receiver her voice came again.
‘Oh, Mammy, Mammy,’ she said, ‘can I go fencing with Daddy and Con tomorrow?’
‘Ha, you can. Are you going down to the river, is it? Yeah, well that’s fine, but don’t go till I’m home.’
‘OK, Mammy, I’ll tell Daddy,’ she said, and shouted off the phone to Noel before returning to the receiver. ‘I love you, Mammy.’
‘I love you too. I’ll see you in the morning.’
‘I’ll bring in my wellies and have them ready.’ She made a kissing noise and ended the call.
Frances decided she’d bring them a few ice creams home in the morning; it would be the weekend after all, they deserved a treat.
As she made to walk out of the room, the casualty alarm flashed amber and sounded off.
The first of the weekend drunks would be coming in, she guessed. She told the young attendant to keep an eye on everything and that she would return in a few minutes.
Though the evening sun was bright and warm, a cool breeze pecked at her feet as she walked down the small hill to the medical building.
There she found the doctor sitting with the tinker family from the night before. The small one lay on the examination table, sweat rolling from his face and chest.
Dr Cullen passed his stethoscope over the child’s frame, unbuttoned his faded check shirt and listened to his breathing. The boy did not react at the cold metal upon his skin. He tossed and turned in delirium and began to cough violently.
‘What is it, Doctor?’ the mother asked in her thick Midlands accent. It was a voice unlike that of the doctors’ or anyone else she knew. It spoke of the road and hard living.
‘John Paul has pneumonia, I’m afraid,’ the doctor said.
‘But you said yesterday it was just a chest infection.’
‘That was yesterday, and this is today. He’s got worse.’
‘Well, what’s to do for him, so?’
‘He needs to be here overnight, but I’m afraid the casualty beds are full.’
The father remained silent and looked adoringly towards his son. A small watery tear in his eye.
‘If it’s money,’ he began, and produced a wad of notes.
‘It’s not money, Mr Stokes. We don’t have a place for him, I’ll have to send him in the ambulance to Mullingar Hospital,’ said the doctor and gestured away the money.
‘He’ll go to no hospital, we’ll be forgot about up there.’
‘I’m afraid that’s all we can do.’
‘But he’s suffering something awful, Doctor, can’t we help him now?’ Mrs Stokes replied.
Frances moved towards the child, placed her palm on his head and felt the heat of the infection on him. ‘I don’t think moving him is a great idea, and he can’t go home,’ she said.
‘No,’ the doctor agreed.
‘What’s to be done, what’s to be done?’ cried Mrs Stokes.
The doctor recoiled in the face of such raw emotion.
‘You’re a good woman, I can see that,’ said Mr Stokes, turning to Frances. ‘You’ve got learning, you can see my son needs help. He needs tablets, medicine. He’ll not go home this evening.’
All the room turned to Frances now. She paused and thought. ‘And there’s really no beds here in casualty?’ she asked the doctor.
‘None,’ he said, and began to pack away his things.
‘We’ll bring him up to the geriatric hospital,’ said Frances.
‘To the geriatric?’ asked the doctor.
‘The child needs a bed and I have one. I’m sure the matron would not mind.’
‘Would that be right by you?’ she said, turning to the boy’s parents.
‘That’ll be fine by us,’ they agreed, and relief swept over their faces.
‘We’ll bring him up and have a bed made ready for him,’ she said.
‘John Paul, John Paul,’ his father called. ‘You’ve a great lackeen to mind you.’
The family carried the child up the hill, refusing a wheelchair. The mother’s earrings jangled with each step she took, until they reached the front door of Mount Bridget and quietly followed Frances in. Maeve the attendant stood waiting by the door, smiling.
‘I hear we have a sick child,’ she said politely.
‘We do,’ said Frances.
‘Blessings on you, nurse,’ said Mrs Stokes.
Upon hearing her speak, Maeve’s face froze. She called Frances to one side. ‘You’ll bring no tinkers in here.’
‘I said you’ll bring no tinkers in here.’
‘I’ll bring whoever I see fit,’ said Frances.
‘I’ll call the matron,’ retorted Maeve, ‘I don’t care what time it is, I’ll call her and bring her up here to see this, this clot.’
The child whimpered quietly as the family stood waiting by the doorway.
‘I’ll serve no tinker, I’ll not carry even water to them,’ insisted Maeve.
‘You’ve nothing to do with this, Maeve, and I’ll remind you, it was the matron who gave you this position and she can as easily take it from you. Now get out of my sight.’
Maeve moved aside and hushed bitch under her voice as the family entered the corridor.
The Stokes were quiet as the father placed the boy in the bed.
‘The doctor gave me these,’ said Mrs Stokes, and handed her some tablets.
Frances examined the bottle and read the label. ‘We’ll keep the medicine in him and I’ll set up a drip for him; he’s in need of fluids.’
The parents stood quietly in the middle of the room as Frances prepared the boy, swabbed his arm and inserted the drip.
‘Can we stay, Sister?’ asked the mother.
‘It’s Frances, and yes you can, we’ve broken enough rules this evening, I don’t see what else for it.’
‘What should we do?’ the father asked.
‘We’ll pray,’ said Mrs Stokes.
‘If we get him through the night, he’ll be fine,’ said Frances.
‘Would you pray with us?’
‘I . . . I don’t know,’ she began.
‘It would mean a lot,’ they said.
Frances agreed and they kneeled by the bedside.
Mrs Stokes began:
Our gathra, who cradgies in the manyak-norch,
We turry kerrath about your moniker.
Let’s turry to the norch where your jeel cradgies,
And let your jeel shans get greydied nosher same as it is where you cradgie.
Bug us eynik to lush this thullis,
And turri us you’re nijesh sharrig for the gammy eyniks we greydied,
Just like we ain’t sharrig at the gammi needies that greydi the same to us.
Nijesh let us soonie eyniks that’ll make us greydi gammy eyniks,
But solk us away from the taddy.
She did not know the tinker’s language but recognised the Lord’s Prayer. She blessed herself as they did and prayed her own silent prayer for the child.
She looked at their worried faces, their devotion so strong and clear; if prayer alone could mend the boy they would need no doctor.
‘I should make my rounds,’ she said.
‘Right you are,’ said the father, and turned back to his son.
Frances quietly closed the door and walked back down the corridor. She had hoped to see Nan Mulcahy before bedtime, but the night had worn away and the lights were starting to go out across the wards and corridors.
She walked to Nan’s room, gently knocked on the door and opened it to find her sleeping. They would talk in the morning. She would bring her a good strong cup and they would discuss all the news.
By eleven that night, she paused and broke for coffee. Her legs were stiff and she gently massaged her calves as the kettle boiled. When she had her cup in front of her she breathed in the strong aroma, feeling it roll down her throat as she came awake again.
The attendants were cleaning the day room and Maeve was sulking in the canteen. She had no time for the girl now; the matron would deal with her tomorrow.
Tinker or not, he was a child in need. It was nothing but the girl’s own backwardness that had blinded her to that.
God is good but He gives us our lot to do.
She looked to her watch and was reminded of Brid Doherty. It had been hours since she had checked on her. She knocked the remains of her coffee over as she stood up quickly and cursed herself as she moved through the wards.
The scene was as she had left it. Mary-Anne sat by the bedside, Brid’s hand in hers. She gently stroked it by the pale light of the side table lamp.
‘Is everything all right, Mary-Anne? I’m so sorry to have left you for so long; we had a child come into the casualty and I had to bring him here and the time got away and –’
‘It’s fine,’ said Mary-Anne. ‘You don’t need to be sorry.’
‘Is Brid well?’
‘Brid is at peace,’ she said, and continued to stroke her hand. ‘I did not want to leave her, you see. My father always said it was bad luck.’
‘Your father was a good man,’ said Frances.
She moved towards the corpse and checked the pulse. Her skin was growing cold already.
‘She was a good soul,’ said Mary-Anne. ‘She never treated me any different to the rest, even if I had come from the institution.’
‘No,’ said Frances. She looked at the time. She would call the priest and get Maeve to lay out the body. Perhaps something of the occasion might wear off on the girl.
‘You can go on to bed now, Mary-Anne,’ said Frances. She knew the sisters must be wondering what kept her.
‘If it’s OK, Frances, I’ll sit with her a while more. Till the father comes.’
‘If you want.’
Frances stroked Brid’s face and left the room, closing the door behind her.
The night wore on and finding herself moving towards sleep, she began to clean. She washed the staffroom, cleaning out the presses and cupboards. She heated some water and washed the corridors and wards. It was a way of keeping on, to ensure sleep did not come over her.
The priest arrived from the cathedral and she led him to the room. She left Mary-Anne to talk with him.
Night moved to dawn and now she heated her thawed curry in the oven. Looking out the window, she could see the last of the stars wear upon the sky, twinkle and fade.
The birds would call out soon.
She took a solitary round through the quiet wards and rooms. In the distance, she could hear a low murmur, chanting on and on. She walked further then closer in search of its source and found herself at the door of the tinker boy John Paul’s room.
His father and mother sat by the bed. The father was asleep on an old wooden chair and his mother was still steadfastly praying.
The drip was nearly finished and the child looked visibly better. The sun’s rays moved slowly into the room, illuminating the scene like a sacred grotto.
A floorboard creaked under Frances’s foot and Mrs Stokes looked up from her prayers. ‘He’s coming back to us.’ She ran her hand over her son’s face.
‘The worst is over,’ said Frances. She changed the drip and found the boy’s fever was gone.
The child stirred with the pain of the drip’s needle and opened his eyes softly, looking around the room and settling on the face of his mother.
‘You’re getting better, John Paul,’ she said.
‘Mrs Stokes, will you come have a cup of tea? You’ve been awake all night.’
‘I think John Paul is OK now. A cup would do you well.’
The two women walked to the staffroom and Frances prepared a pot. She realised now that they were not so very different: would she herself not spend the night awake by her sick child’s bed? Would she not pray furious prayers to see them through safely?
‘You’re a good woman,’ said Mrs Stokes. ‘Have you children of your own?’
‘Two: a boy and a little girl,’ said Frances. ‘And you?’
‘We’ve seven,’ replied the woman, and laughed. ‘I’ve a lively husband!’
The pair smiled and giggled. The pale colour of the woman’s face began to lift as the hot tea brought her back to herself.
‘I don’t know what we would have done without you this evening. It was God’s hand.’
‘I’m a mother too,’ Frances said simply.
‘That you are, and a good one, I’d say.’ She stood now and reached out her hand towards Frances. ‘Dhalyōn mun’ia,’ she said, and closed her eyes, mumbling unheard words, secret words, and then she blessed herself. ‘That’s a Traveller blessing,’ she explained, ‘that’s to keep you and yours.’
‘Thank you,’ said Frances, and she felt a cold tingle run up her back.
‘We’ll go now,’ said Mrs Stokes. ‘John Paul is better, as you said yourself. The worst is over him.’
‘It is, I did, but I think he should stay on just to be sure.’
The woman shook her head. ‘No, no, the morning’ll come and there will be too many questions. We don’t want to make trouble.’
‘But it’s no trouble, no trouble at all. The matron is a good woman, a good sister, she won’t say anything.’
‘Mabye she won’t but there are others who wouldn’t like us here,’ replied Mrs Stokes, and moved out the room and back towards
‘But, but . . .’ stammered Frances.
They walked back to the room but the child was no longer there.
‘Where’s John Paul?’ Mrs Stokes said, shaking her husband.
‘He’s here, he’s in the bed,’ he said, waking up suddenly.
‘He’s not, he’s gone!’
‘He can’t be gone far; maybe he needed the toilet,’ reassured Frances. ‘Just wait here, pack your things and I’ll find him.’
She moved quickly through the corridors now, checking the washrooms, the oratory – but the boy could not be found. She walked through the ward and saw the pearly lights of dawn on the leather-clad chairs, the flecks of loose skin and dust caught in the slowly moving beams and hovering in the still air.
She began to check the rooms, walking past sleeping patient after sleeping patient. At Mrs Mulcahy’s room, she gently opened the old wooden door.
John Paul stood by the open window, with Nan still fast asleep. The small birds gathered round him, the robin perched in his outstretched hand.
He stroked the small bird and it chirped towards him. She stood a moment transfixed.
Nan would never believe it, never.
John Paul turned to her and smiled and with that the robin and his comrades took flight and raced for the window.
The boy’s eyes were bright and green, the fight returned to them. She gently led him by the hand back to his worrying parents.
‘I found him,’ she said, and handed the child back to them. ‘You’ll need these,’ she said, pressing some antibiotics into his father’s hands. ‘Two of the blue ones in the morning and two of the red ones at night. Keep that up for a week and if he is not better come back to me.’
‘Thank you, Sister,’ Mr Stokes said, and made again to give her money. His knuckles were thick and worn.
‘No, no, there’s no need for money. I only wish you’d stay.’
‘No, we’re better moving,’ the mother responded. ‘The van is below, John Joe, will you bring it up?’
They walked towards the front door and waited for him to bring up the motor. Frances heard the low cough and splutter of the red Toyota Hiace as it rounded the corner and came to at the foot of the door.
She gently kissed the boy and shook the woman’s hand.
‘I never got your name,’ said Frances.
‘It’s Margaret,’ she said.
They wrapped the boy in another blanket and bundled him into the front seat. Frances waved them off as the sun began to rise up out over the town, past the cathedral and the railroad. In the streets the tricolours and bunting flapped lazily in the breeze, blowing for all they were worth, for everything and nothing.
Photograph © Eamonn Doyle/Neutral Grey