Anna Allen, born in County Wicklow, has lived in Connemara for over thirty years. Though the idea of writing nagged and haunted her, having married and started a family that grew and grew, there were too many other calls on her time. However, the day came when she realised the only cure for the torture of wanting to write – was to write. Her first contribution was published in 1972 to be followed by many more reflecting her views on relevant subjects of the day, in the Evening and the Morning editions of the Irish Press. Short Stories came later. When the chance to become a mature (University) student presented itself, Anna grasped the opportunity. In 2007 she emerged from NUIG with an honours BA (English, Archaeology, Sociology/Politics and Philosophy, followed by an M Litt. in Feminist Philosophy.
Swags and Tails
By Anna Allen
Oh don’t tell me! Sally thought she was alone till she noticed the flurry behind the curtains. And not any old curtains but her pride and joy of curtains; the pair of heavy, fully-lined black curtains with the colourful Chianti bottles lying about in interesting positions. The contemporary curtains she’d bought at the auction in the posh house in Ballsbridge – for a song. They’d only been hanging for less than a week. It just was not true that Roger had earmarked them for an early morning onslaught. She should have known better but then what could she have done to head him off? With the swags and tails sitting majestically on the wooden pelmet and the drapes themselves, floor to ceiling, where was she going with the length and girt of material offering itself as the best hidey-hole in the world? Sean’s words came back to bite her. ‘Brain-damaged kids and fancy drapes don’t go together, precious,’ he’d said, when she asked him to send the local handyman around to hang them up. ‘Have you not learned that much in the past eight years?’
‘Things will be getting better now seeing he’s away all week and is getting some behavioural training.’ Sally’s voice splintered between hope and doubt.
‘Yeah, but you’ve put an awful lot of effort into trying to make a normal home and even more trying to keep up…’
‘With the Jones’s I suppose you mean.’
‘Well these curtains look very fancy and I doubt Roger will cop on.’
‘Ah I’ll worry about that and he is improving,’ she’d said but now she remembered the glitter in his eyes when he walked into the living-room the evening before coming face to face with the new exotic window dressing. She should have realised when he hadn’t lit on the possibilities there and then that a devious plan was taking hold somewhere in that unknowable head of his.
‘Roger,’ her voice was sharp in the eerie early morning, ‘come out of there before I…I’ but Roger had hold of the edges of each curtain with such tenacity that he lifted his feet from the floor and swung himself forward catching Sally in the chest with his heavy boots. Amid flailing arms and legs, the squeak of screws abandoning wood and the titter of brass runners out of track down came curtains, swags, tails, wooden-pelmet, Roger, Sally and all to a squirming mass on the floor. A sharp shocked silence was followed by a screaming outburst of laughter from Roger so potent so infectious
that Sally had little option but to join in. Taking the stairs two at a time, this furore brought Sean from his bed in a readymade frenzy.
‘What did I tell you?’ He lifted a convulsed Roger from the remains of the window dressing saying, ‘he might have been killed.’
‘And what about me?’ shouted Sally, ‘us’ as tiny Katie joined the fray having backed her way down the steep stairs, ‘that Jack-of-all-trades you sent couldn’t hang a dead man.’
‘Yeah, but the weight of them; it’s a wonder the walls didn’t come down as well.’
‘That’s ridiculous,’ Sally said her laughter turning to tears at the sight of the naked window shrinking back to its mean little self.
‘It’s on your own head Sal, how often have I told you fancy houses and brain-damaged humans are opposite ends of the spectrum, you’re only making life hard for yourself.’
‘Put the kettle on,’ was her abrupt reply.
The bang of the hall-door was Sean’s final throw of the dice.
Sally sat on the floor rocking to and fro with Katie under one arm and Roger under the other. The sound of the car engine told her that Sean was on his way to the garage he ran and, as it was Saturday, he’d be back before long to let her go to the hairdressers. Roger soon began to wriggle with strenuous intent; no doubt he wanted his breakfast. Katie was content as long as she had the comfort of “Mam” to hold on to.
‘Mitten Ma’tin,’ Roger lisped, his soulful grey eyes scrutinising her face. ‘You sowwy.’ The ‘you’ she understood to be himself.
‘You’re sorry, Roger. I know that love but I’m your Mammy or Mama you know.’ Why, she wondered had Mammy or Mama never crossed his lips or entered his mind? Why? He was eight years old and still without the comfort of a “Mammy” or a “Mama” in his halting vocabulary, if indeed that loss didn’t extend into his life itself. And maybe it did. She must try and find out more about this peculiarity of his. Now she took comfort in the notion that language was only language. “Mammies” were real people, flesh and blood, she consoled herself. But maybe Roger saw things differently and there was no Mammy in his world. He called Sean “Dada” but she was Mitten Ma’tin. ‘Mitten Ma’tin,’ he repeated, ‘you, you..,’
‘Mammy,’ said Sally, ‘I’m your Mammy, your Mama, your Mother.’ She pulled him so close to herself Katie keeled over hitting her head on the sharp edge of the pelmet.
‘Ah poor little mite,’ Sally said unwinding Roger’s arms to turn her attention to the wailing Katie. Before she had time to think the front door slammed with such ominous ferocity she knew Roger had taken to his heels, half-dressed, clothes half-cocked and bootlaces flying. She couldn’t just drop everything and take to the roads, the housing estates and even the fields beyond as she often was forced to do when he was home all day every day. Since he’d become weekly-residential his penchant for running away had cooled down making her wonder if the ethos at the “special school” had succeeded where she had failed. The idea that punishment might be meted out dropped heavy and slow. Life was high tension enough without going up ally-ways in search of extra tortures. There were no bruises or tell-tale marks of any kind on her son; even to consider this possibility was beyond forbearance.
She phoned the garage to be told that Sean was out on a job and there was no way of contacting him. There was nothing for it but to take to the roads in search of the fugitive. With the pram to push she’d have to stick to the roads, lanes and alley-ways; fields were “no-go” areas
‘You’re out early, Mrs Martin,’ she heard as she passed “the van” the most convenient place to buy everyday food and household goods at unorthodox times.
‘I’ll be open in a minute.’
‘I don’t suppose you saw Roger…’
‘Ah no Missus it’s a bit early, even for him.’
With her heart in her mouth she pushed the pram and ploughed on in the direction of the canal. Roger had never shown signs of putting himself I danger. He showed suitable respect for the busses tearing up and down the road; but he could slip and fall with those bootlaces swinging around his ankles he could end up under anything. If only she’d made an effort to tie them instead of fretting about the bloody curtains!
‘Towards the Valley.’ Shouted Mister O’Hagan bringing in his milk-bottle. He muttered something under his breath that she didn’t take as compassionate.
‘The Valley,’ she repeated with consternation. That terrible piece of waste ground crawling with drop-outs and lay-abouts not to mention the piebald horses trampling wildly about. Her legs began to buckle as she pushed on and on with a vision of Roger coming a cropper on a pile of broken glass or a horse kicking him to death.
‘Ah, there y’are, Missus Martin, I saw him flying by about twenty minutes ago. He was in a great hurry wherever he thought he was going,’ was Bridie Murphy’s offering as she swept her little garden path. ‘If I was you now I’d go home and call the Guards. You can’t push that pram down there.’
‘Some things never change.’
Sally swung the pram around while the tears of anger and frustration welled up in her eyes. At least tomorrow was Sunday he’d be going back to safety and less stress for her. That was only if she could stop fretting about him and stop reliving that awful day he’d left home for the very first time.
The wrenching horror of that particular Sunday afternoon added itself to her company as she relentlessly pushed the pram back the way she’d come. That sad unknowing look he had thrown her as she sat in her sick bed recovering from a miscarriage had never lost its potency. Her damaged little boy going off into the hands of strangers and she letting it happen.
“I’m walking the streets in the rain,” sung Butch Moore through an open window as Sally’s tears of desperation flooded on and on. Relentless memory would never let her forget his face looking up at her bedroom window as he got into his father’s car with no idea that he wouldn’t sleep in his own little bed or give her a goodnight kiss till he came home again.
‘Gone again?’ queried Missus Hannon from next door as Sally turned in her gate.
‘I really pity you with that child, Missus, You shouldn’t regret letting him go to that special school. Nobody should have to live under such stress.’
‘What can I do?’ Sally’s voice was now a roar trying to be heard above Katie’s wale.
‘Yeah, well,’ said Missus Hannon who was good at keeping her husband’s nose to the grindstone, ’you could certainly do with some help.’
Once inside and a fresh bottle pacifying Katie, Sally phoned the local Garda. Finding it well-nigh impossible to keep the built-in guilt from her voice and told her story and answered the searching questions as best she could. Usually, she was out there taking responsibility for her own child and not seeking help from officialdom of any kind. As far as she knew this was Roger’s first foray anywhere near the dreaded valley. While waiting for news dragged on like a funeral her mind wound and twisted its way from one danger to another and every dark possibility was given its fair share of consideration. Finally the shrill ring of the phone bell set her nerve ends jangling.
‘Oh no,’ said Sean at the other end, ‘I’m on my way.’
Sally had only replaced the receiver when the discreet police car pulled up on the roadway outside the house.
‘Is this him?’ asked the large man in civilian clothes walking the dishevelled urchin-like boy up the path.
‘That’s him,’ said Sally relief flowing through her shattered nerves. You’re lucky we found him in the whole of his health. That Valley is no place for kids, especially little boys like this one. A den of iniquity is what it is. We’re the “Special Branch” he said ‘and you’re very lucky we were about when the message came in.’
‘You’ll want to be looking after that young fella Missus,’ said another equally big man, his head sticking out through the open passenger-door window.
Sally wanted to tell them both a thing or two about her life but outrage strangled the words before she could utter them. As the car took off she was completely dumbfounded at the sight of another pair of plain-clothes men occupying the back seat. She gasped grasping Roger’s hand while propelling him inside the house.
Sean’s eyes moved anxiously. ‘We’ve a decision to make now.’
‘I suppose so,’ Sally picked up a handful of brass runners while Roger flung a swag landing it neatly on Sean’s head. Amid the laughter that followed Sean said, ‘there’s a window in the garage that would love heavy curtains, I’m blown out of it with the draft and on a windy day…’
‘The garage,’ said Sally shocked to the core.
‘No swags nor tails though,’ Sean tried to laugh out loud but his voice crumbled into sobs.
‘There’s no point putting those things back here.’ He glanced at Roger who was now stashing the brass runners into a corner for further use. ‘If we want to keep things as they are, weekends home, then you must accept reality otherwise its full residency.’
‘Oh no, I couldn’t live with that,’ said Sally.
‘I don’t want it either.’ Sean gathered up the curtains. ‘You have to cut your cloth according to its measure.’
Sunday they set off for the Roger’s Special School with Sean driving and Roger up front beside him; Sally and Katie on the back seat. As he swerved the car through the ornate gates Sally noticed the quickening of the anvil pulsating at Sean’s temple while the big cold edifice advanced to meet them. The frosty glisten on the short grass reflected the chill in Sally’s heart. A heart now so desolate it wanted to know if she was a mother or a monster to abandon her helpless child to the hands of others. How could she ever let him go? Who knew how he coped with this betrayal beyond the obvious distress he displayed when it came time to part. No wonder he’d never called her Mama.
Sean’s face was a contortion of painful resignation as he planted the Judas’ kiss on his son’s cheek, coaxing him out of the car with the usual bag of goodies. Sally and Katie sat silently in the back. As for Sally there was nowhere to go with her feelings. No words to be said while Roger put every ounce of his being into the tug-of-war with Sean. Sally and Katie sat silently in the back.
‘Welcome back Roger.’ Like a whispering emergence from the ether Brother Anton appeared from nowhere and brought a quick end to the impasse. Sally exhaled relief combined with maternal misery as Roger succumbed to the enigmatic Brother Anton.
‘Look at that,’ said Sean settling himself back into the driver’s seat. ‘Brother Anton has the touch, thank God for that much.’ Sally said nothing. Katie sighed. ‘Can you imagine Sal,’ Sean went on as they watched their son enter the building giving one final wave from the top step in tandem with Brother Anton. ‘I often wonder about those fellows, can you imagine being saintly enough to give up your life to such a cause?’
‘No.’ said Sally.
‘We ought to be glad,’ Sean went on, ‘we got him into such a place where he’ll be cared for and professionally looked after. Anyway, you’d never be able to mind him at home now, he’s growing so fast.’
‘I suppose,’ said Sally giving a last look at the big impersonal building with its high windows and low-cut lawns; a cold shiver ran over her heart.