Pat Mullan is originally from rural North Derry. He now lives in Co Kildare. He is interested in short stories and flash fiction. His short story “The Same Place” was published in the fourth issue of Spontaneity, “Good For Me” was published in the Galway Review (August 2014) and “Blood on the Knife” was published in the Paper Swans i-pamphlet (December 2014).
By Pat Mullan
Mary Rose was off again. Tranquillity shattered. And it was going to stay that way until she was sedated and the medication took effect. The rocking and raving was becoming an almost daily occurrence. Something would have to be done. It wasn’t her fault. It could happen to anyone. They said it was all down to her declining hearing. If you can’t hear properly, over time your speech is affected. You repeat what you hear. If all you hear is a dull mumble or grunt, that is how you speak. Poor Mary Rose is just trying to talk and they are treating her like a disturbed lunatic. But there’s the rest of the residents to be considered too. The common good. They really need a room for people that just want a bit of peace and quiet, thought Jimmy. Maybe a library. It shouldn’t be like this. She was just beginning to settle down as Agnes arrived with the breakfast. “Full Irish all around?” as she burst through the swinging doors with her trolley. “Come and get it.” Jimmy waited until the others were sorted and Agnes came over to him with the porridge, mixed with honey and sunflower seeds – Jimmy’s special. “Now get that into you Jimmy, it’ll put hairs on your chest.”
Mary Rose was calm now, the poor creature. Never had a visitor that Jimmy saw, other than Fr. Sean. After thirty years working with the nuns in the laundry in Donnybrook, a virtual prisoner, this is how she ends up. Relentlessly reminded of her guilt over the years, yet she still had respect for nuns and priests.
The piped music came on – time to take out the hearing aids. How can the staff stick it, never speak of the patients? The same bloody tape day in, day out for months on end before they are changed. When Jimmy had asked for more variety he was told that the music was carefully selected as therapy for the patients, that his requested selection was not in keeping with this. What could possibly be wrong with a bit of jazz and blues?
A waste of time asking for change at St. Anthony’s, Jimmy had found unless you had the stamina of an ox and the patience of a saint. They always made you feel bad – even for asking for a minor change to something, as if you were depriving other patients. So you had to pick the important fights and be prepared for a long campaign. And persuading them that porridge was a better and healthier option than a fried breakfast needed a letter from the Health Board dietician and four months of canvassing by Jimmy before they reluctantly agreed to offer porridge as an alternative.
The mornings were the best. Before the television went on. It had taken Jimmy the best part of 12 months to get them to agree to no television before 12 noon. The TV in the dayroom was never off when Jimmy had arrived at St. Anthony’s. CNN relentlessly. American crap. If you wanted a bit of peace and quiet you stayed in your room – unless you were independently mobile and trusted, and few qualified on these grounds. Then you had the option of going outside for a walk. Mary Rose had swung the vote for Jimmy. After his repeated requests, they had agreed to put the proposal to keep the TV off until mid-day to a vote of the residents. Not that she, and others besides, knew exactly why they were putting their hands up. Mary Rose liked to ape what Jimmy did. When Jimmy was reading, Mary Rose had a book on her lap; when Jimmy was having his nails clipped, she had to have hers clipped; and when Jimmy asked the attendant to bring him outside for a bit of fresh air, she needed fresh air too. So when Jimmy’s hand went up, Mary Rose had followed suit.
“Time for my walk”, Jimmy muttered to himself.
“Alk, alk” said Mary Rose. She got visibly restless and ran to get her own coat and Jimmy’s. Robert was on duty today. We’re in for more moaning about poor pay and the unfairness of the supervisor, thought Jimmy. Robert knew Jimmy’s routine and arrived in the dayroom just as Mary Rose emerged with their rain jackets.
“Down to the river, as usual, Jimmy?” as he tipped Jimmy back in his wheelchair and headed for the double doors. “Keep close, Mary Rose, and not too near the water today.”
Mary Rose’s spirits were rising as she danced along the riverbank path. Jimmy had heard snippets of her past from staff at the nursing home, from Fr. Sean, and from some of the other residents. The son she hadn’t seen in forty years. The guilt she felt. Her treatment at the hands of Sister Teresa in the laundry. Her occasional outbursts. Content now when she was outside in the open air, away from the confinement of her own room or the day room. She needed a bit of space – not surprising. And all that guilt. By some standards, Jimmy was lucky.
Losing Hannah was a blow Jimmy never recovered from. The warning signs had been there, but he hadn’t seen it coming. Nor had the boys. How had he not? The years together, building the house, First Communions, camping with the kids in France, skiing in Andora, James’s wedding. Always together. Life shattered that day. And then the accident three weeks later left him old and broken physically, and confined to a wheelchair. He had been in a dazed stupor in the days and weeks after Hannah was gone and was mowing the grass at the roadside, just outside the fence. As he came to the end of the row, in turning the lawnmower around, he had stepped back on to the road.
No feeling from the waist down. Backside and legs numb. It had been his own fault. Reconstructive surgery. Endless, mindless weeks and months in the Rehab. Old, without question. Complete dependence on others. Alone. Without hope.
But recovery of a sort at some level began under the vigilant care of the Rehab team. Almost without realising it, Jimmy had begun to adjust to a life without the use of his legs.
After lunch Jimmy retired to his room for his hour or two away from the CNN hype to read and doze. Mary Rose had taken to “helping” him to his room – totally unnecessary but it seemed to help her, giving her a sense of purpose.
With nowhere to go after Rehab other than an empty house, the Health Board had found a place for him at St Anthony’s even though he was more than ten years younger than any other resident. The half-hearted offer from his eldest – James – to come and stay with him and Amanda in Rathfarnham did not appeal to Jimmy. How did he ever marry such a stuck-up bitch?
The other residents had come to rely on Jimmy for advice. They respected his opinion and he helped them in whatever way he could. Teaching chess, completing forms, explaining solicitor letters and taking up issues on their behalf. In a very short time Mary Rose would get a new lease of life now that the hearing aid application was approved.
Tomorrow could be a pivotal day for Jimmy’s future. The approach had come through James on one of his weekly visits six weeks ago, sounding him out. Jimmy’s initial reaction was immediate dismissal of the idea. By the following weekend his attitude had mellowed considerably as he dared to contemplate a future outside of St Anthony’s.
Maybe it could work. He had promised to accept a phone call from Hannah tomorrow. Who knows what changes Friday would bring?