“A Memory” by Fionnuala O’ Connor

The old people are slumped in their chairs, some slipping sideways like large babies, others fixed upright, rigid even. The radio plays quietly in the corner. The management don’t have a television in this room. Those who can still distinguish TV drama from reality watch day-time television in the other sitting-room. One old man is heading out for his daily walk, to the seafront pub where he will read his newspaper over a glass of Guinness. It is almost normal, except that the nurse must unlock the front door to let him out and the alarm will go off if he stands too close to the door while waiting.

This is a well-run place, clean and comfortable. The staff are professional and patient, kind even, although the matron is hatchet-faced today, thinking of her aged mother thousands of miles away, whom she is not caring for because she is here.

Yet dozens of times a day someone will say “I want to go home”. Mary Doyle has been here a year and still says she’s going to pack her bag and go home today. In the beginning she would get as far as taking out the suitcase, but not any more. She had a visitor a month ago. a middle-aged niece. Mary Doyle was never married and has no children so she gets few visitors. This one did not stay long for Mary fixed her with a fierce gaze and said “someone has taken my key and I can’t get into my house” and “have you got my key?” The niece denies all knowledge of the whereabouts of the key but is uncomfortable, for indeed she has it on her key-ring.

The sweet-faced woman beside Mary is surprisingly foul-mouthed. When the volunteer comes and starts strumming his guitar she shouts “shut up that fucking racket”. Mary Doyle frowns in a puzzled way at the guitar player.

Across from Mary, in his usual place, sits Tom. He must have been a big man in his younger days, he still has height and bulk around his shoulders. He occasionally shouts a comment at someone in the room. The sweet-faced woman regularly tells him to shut up too. Mary Doyle ignores it all.

A young man comes into the room, a visitor for Tom, his grandson Shane making a duty visit. Shane has not seen his grandfather in a few years and has been told to expect a great change in him. They were never very close as Shane has always lived in England, but his mother is always telling him he is the image of her father and the old man used to like to greet him with a slap on the back and “Here’s my grandson who gets his good looks from his grandfather”
“How are you granddad?”
he says but his grandfather doesn’t recognise him at all. He didn’t expect that.
“What do you want?” Tom says. He raises his stick at him.
Shane tries again but Tom seems to get angry and Shane feels foolish standing in the room in front of an old man telling him to go away. Across the way an old lady knocks her drinking cup onto the floor. This is Mary. With some relief Shane goes over and picks up the cup and puts it back on her tray, leaning over her with a pleasant smile.

Mary breaks into whimpers then high pitched notes of distress pushing him away with her hands. The attendant rushes into the room.

It is quite some time before Shane can tell this as a funny story.

Mary told her father she was going to eight o clock mass, followed by confession. She would be with her school friend Kathleen and they would get the same bus home. He considered the fact that it would be late before she got home and wondered should he escort them back. No they were going into town to the Pro Cathedral.
“I’ll leave you to it then” he said.

Kathleen was with her cousin waiting at the door of the Savoy Cinema. Mary was not usually a liar but there were times it was easier when dealing with her father. The cinema was fairly full but sometime during the film a couple of lads came and sat beside them. They were a laugh, full of jokes. One of them kept complimenting Mary. He thought she was really pretty. When they came out Kathleen said
“Well we’ll be off”
“I thought you were getting the bus home with me”
No. Kathleen was staying the night in her cousin’s house. Mary’s new friend said he’d see her to her bus.

She knew really that the short cut wasn’t a short cut but he seemed so nice she went along with it. She was enjoying the flirtation and suspected maybe he would try something on. She never expected to find herself dragged to the ground with a large hand over her mouth almost choking her. She never expected the pain. When he was finished he just left without a word.

She got herself up and out of there and somehow onto the bus and home and let herself into the house and straight up to her room. She couldn’t face school or Kathleen the next day. She told her father she was sick. He didn’t press her, you didn’t enquire too closely about young girls’ sicknesses.

Mary was not completely innocent. She knew what could happen. She did feel sick in fact, with dread. She prayed to the Virgin. She made promises. Then the blood came, thank God, on time three days later.

Mary stayed at home and kept house for her widowed father and little brother, and then for her father until he died. She stayed in the same house until at 85 she was brought, unwillingly, to the nursing home. Since she has been here she has become less mobile and more withdrawn. The nurses have noted that now she mostly does not respond to what is going on around her.
Until today that is, when a half-remembered face loomed over her, dragging her back to the alleyway and the dirty ground

Biographical Note:

Fionnuala has previously had stories published in The Sunday Tribune , Stet and Books Ireland. Her unpublished work includes short stories, a short novel and a screenplay. Her recent work has also included a short story for children, haikus and two tiny Plays (4 minute plays) which I have submitted to Fishamble.

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