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.