Phil Carrick enjoys writing fiction, short prose, and poetry, and is currently working on a book of short stories. Phil was born and raised in Ireland in the 1950’s and lived in various parts of Offaly, Kildare, and Galway. She was educated at both UCD and Trinity College Dublin and spent a full career as a Microbiologist in the Dublin Institute of Technology. The Galway Review published her fiction pieces, The Night Visitor, A Woman in need, and Backseat Passenger, in 2020, 2021and 2022 respectively. Also in 2022, the online writing magazine, Writing.ie, published two of Phil’s memoirs in ‘Mining Memories’.
The Bicycle Shed
By Phil Carrick
It is 1965, and a black Morris Minor drives slowly towards the school gates. Children are converging from all directions. Most of the pupils arrive on foot, with an exceptional few cycling. The only family arriving by car is the Farrell family. Mary, a girl from my class, sits in the front passenger seat. The driver, her mother, is looking straight ahead and is not communicating with her passengers. This woman is in her early forties, but the colour has already seeped from her shoulder-length hair. She wears it in a simple style, parted to one side and combed straight down to her shoulders. This morning, her hair gleams silver in contrast to the blackness of her overcoat. Mary is wearing a black jumper, and I can see a huddle of brighter colours in the back seat, her two younger sisters. Within seconds of the car coming to a stop, Mary thrusts open the car door, slams it closed behind her leaving her siblings to fend for themselves and heads through the low-set school gates.
A sense of sadness descended on our small school and locality three days back. Mary’s father had died suddenly and unexpectedly from a heart attack. It is the first time that I, and most of our small class group, become aware of death. As our classmate returns this morning after a three-day absence, we girls huddle together behind a raised plant bed beside the front entrance. Jostling about with each other, we pretend normality. We have neither word nor gesture to offer a friend who has just lost her father.
There are six girls and two boys in our class group, Mary, Kate, Louise, Zeta, Eleanor and I, and the twins Vinny and Ed. We are in third class and occupy a row in one room of this two-roomed school. Our ages range from nine to eleven years, and there are three other classes in this room,4th, 5th, and sixth. The boys are already running and howling in their grass patch to the school’s right. They show no interest in Mary’s return.
Mary and her sisters stood out among the school’s pupils because of their interesting clothes. Their mother hand-knitted each piece of clothing and used very bright colours. Each girl was dressed in a knitted outfit comprising tights, a skirt with pleats, and a jumper. Their costumes were colour coordinated and looked exceptionally well made. The beautiful bright colours, the sheer quantity of wool and the attention given to detail in the clothes impressed me then and have remained in my memory. Mary always carried herself with an aloofness shown in the slight sideways turn of her head away from direct eye contact and a look of imminent vexation on her forehead. She is the oldest of three sisters and has no brothers.
Three days back, Mary and her sisters left school early afternoon. The person who collected them was a relative; Kate recognised him as the children’s uncle. We noted the seriousness on the uncle’s face and the hushed conversation he had with the master, facilitated by the bowing of adult heads towards each other. One of the boys at the back of our row whispered.
“Someone has died!”
After her family left the school, the master directed us to stand for prayer. This prayer was unfamiliar and mentioned the repose of the soul of a man named Patrick. When the bell rang out to denote the end of the school day, we clambered out the door to the girls’ cloakroom. Kate, the girl who knew the uncle, informed us that Mary’s father was the man whose soul we prayed for. Our mouths fell open with shock, and Louise, the talkative one, said aloud, “Mary’s Dad is dead!” The master’s head appeared through the cloakroom door, and he yelled at us to pack up our things quickly and head home.
I told my parents the news at home, and they were obviously surprised and saddened. They mentioned that times would be difficult for Mary’s mother and sisters and discussed what might happen next for the family. I noticed my mother blessing herself more frequently as she went about the house. My father added extra prayers to the family rosary for Mary’s family. I was anxious to return to school the following day to chat with the girls. We usually gathered in the bicycle shed at lunch breaks for a chat. We asked each other questions in the hope that some answer might evolve.
Kate told us that Mary would be away from school for three days. We gathered in the bicycle shed on each of these days, sitting side by side on the long wooden bench. One morning, Vinny, one of the twins, joined us. Vinny lingers at the edge of our group for as long as we let him, while his brother Ed, who we all secretly love, shows no interest in us. Vinny joins us on most occasions until his antics have us either giggling or screaming, and we need the release of a good chase. He told us about his grandmother’s funeral and boasted that he had seen her dead body in the coffin.
“What did she look like?” we enquire.
“Pale and ghostly and dead…” he says, with a pretend deep voice.
Then he jumped up on the bench and made circles with the thumb and forefinger of both hands around his eyes and leapt down upon us growling:
“And she had big black eyes…Whrrroofff!”
We all screamed at once and chased Vinny back to the boys’ side of the school.
The twins, Vinny and Ed, are like two halves of a badly beaten omelette settling on a pan. Most of the richness of the yolks has floated towards Ed’s half, giving him depth, colour, and a definite boundary. In contrast, Vinny’s half spills haphazardly to the left of this whole, creating a thin layer of off-white colour and a non-descript edge. Ed’s clothes seem to fit his body well and complement his air of self-confidence. He has deep-set eyes that exude a rugged look that deters us ten-year-olds from approaching him. His dark brown hair is short and must be of firm texture because individual strands hold their place nicely.
In contrast, Vinny’s clothes are continually attempting to leave his body. His trousers try to escape from his waist. They need continuous shuffling upwards, and the V-neck of his jumper pulls away from his neckline and hangs down off one shoulder. Vinny has wispy strands of straw-coloured hair that refuse to remain in place. He straddles along with a lightness of manner that draws people towards him. He looks so unravelled and unwary that approaching him gives no sense that one might be upsetting him further. His face is pale, soft, and smudgy, partly due to large eyes in constant liquid motion and a runny nose that leaves silver snail trails across his face and on the sleeves of his jumper.
On the third day of Mary’s absence, Vinny joined us again and listened as Zeta told her story of a death in the family. Zeta is two years older than the rest of us and is the person in our group who has the most knowledge being the eldest daughter in a large family. The master frequently slaps Zeta for not completing homework, but she never speaks up in class to explain. Outside class, she tells us that she cooks dinner for her father, brothers, and sisters and makes the beds. Her mother suffers from poor health. One day, she showed us scars on her thin arms from a scalding, having dropped a pot of boiling potatoes. Zeta seems proud of the wounds, and we frequently pester her for a look. She begins the story of her Grans death.
“Gran took her last breath at around ten past midnight on a Saturday night. I was sent to her house earlier in the day to help Aunt Tess with the arrangements.”
“What arrangements?” we beg.
“You must do certain things when a person dies and after they die.”
Zeta went on, “Aunt Tess is a witch!”
We loved Zeta’s bravery. In class, she was a mouse, but once in the bicycle shed, she might blurt out any word, especially when we get around to talking about the master.
“The witch ordered me about for the whole day, and my legs were falling off with tiredness. Take this up to the bedroom! Bring down the sheets from the hot press! Iron this! Fold that!”
We giggle at the funny faces Zeta can make.
“She told me there would be people coming to the house later in the afternoon to pay their respects and that preparations must be made.”
“Respects?” asked a few of us in unison.
“Yes, every relative or friend who knew the dead person turns up to drink ale or stout and eat sandwiches. At eleven o’clock, I was sent up to bed and fell asleep in the room opposite Gran’s bedroom.”
“Then it happened! Through my sleep, I heard Aunt’s voice saying, ‘she’s going, she’s going.’ I stepped onto the landing and saw people coming from the sitting room. In the open doorway to Gran’s room, people were kneeling down and further in towards the bedside, I could see old men on their knees, some with rosary beads hanging from their hands. The room was dark, with shadows moving on the walls because the only light was from two small white candles burning on the bedside table.”
Zeta’s eyes grew big as if she were looking into the darkness, and we all huddled together on the bench.
“Aunt Tess was saying prayers and sometimes reading from a prayer book. The kneeling people were replying to her prayers.”
“Could you see your Gran?” I ask.
“Yes! I stepped in carefully between the kneelers and knelt down near the bed. I watched Gran’s mouth breathe a few times, and then it seemed her breath stayed inside her. She did not breathe out again.”
“Were her eyes open?”
“What did she look like?”
“Were you scared?”
“Aunt Tess went into more long prayers, and eventually, she asked those present to leave the room as she had things to do. A nun had arrived at the house and headed up the stairs to help my aunt. I was told to search the small drawer in the hallstand downstairs for two pennies and bring them up to her.”
“Two pennies, why?” said Louise.”
Kate told us to shush and let Zeta talk.
“When I returned with the pennies, I knocked gently on the bedroom door, and after a few minutes, Aunt Tess let me in. All furniture was gone except for Gran’s bed and a small table. At first, I did not look directly at Gran, but my aunt called me over by the bed. Aunt Tess was leaning in over Gran’s face. Gran’s eyes were open and staring upwards. Her mouth was wide open and looked awful; my heart was thumping. Then Aunt Tess wedged a small prayer book under Gran’s chin to hold her mouth closed. It took three attempts to get the prayer book positioned properly. I just wanted to run from the room. Gran’s lips were colourless and closed in a tight line, but this line was so crooked, it made her look angry… creepy.”
As we moved closer on the bench, it made a creaking noise, which caused a unanimous scream. Zeta continued:
“Gran’s skin looked greyish against the whiteness of the pillowcase. I was scared stiff. Aunt Tess closed one of Gran’s eyes with her fingers and said, “pass me one” I was frozen to the spot.” I couldn’t move a foot forward until my aunt shouted:
“The penny Zeta, I’m waiting.”
“I passed it over, and she pressed it on Gran’s closed eye. She did the same to the second eye, and I duly handed her the penny. She said: “This will keep the eyes closed. I just stood there. Gran was lying flat in the bed on a white sheet. Her arms and hands were out over the covers and joined in a prayer-like position. She was dressed in a sky-blue gown, and I could see the long arms of it leading down to her hands. The blue fabric was shiny, but you should have seen her hands, dead white and like a bunch of old bones. I stopped looking at Gran’s face because the dark pennies and crooked lips made her look fearsome. I was terrified she might move or say something, which would have killed me.”
We joined in Zeta’s fear with various renditions of “Oh my God” and glared into each other’s eyes.
“Then I startled when Aunt Tess snarled, you are no use to me. Go back downstairs.”
Zeta looked up into our faces, and with a low growl, she said, “I am never going near a dead body again.”
This morning, three days after Mary left us, she arrives back, and once through the school gates, she takes possession of herself and walks at an even pace up the path to the school door. We stop our nervous chatter and look at her. I know I am staring at her, having no control over these eyes that are searching her for something. Do I expect her to look, walk, or behave differently? I just know that I am in awe of her. She must have known we would stare, checking out every inch of her manner and motion from car to the school door, an awkward bunch of children waiting and watching.
Today Mary seems older, the flick back of her dark hair revealing determination on her face. Her eyes focus straight ahead at a point in her future, and no tears are visible. Her legs stride forward, one left, then right, the motion pushing out the box pleats in a dark green skirt and revealing two strong knees above her long white socks. She wears a black knitted jumper, one we have not seen before and, no doubt, the handy work of her mother. She continues to face forward, not looking left or right, and heads to the school doorway. She goes like a wind from the sea, pushing away the door from her body and striding directly into the classroom ahead. We can see her approach the master’s desk and engage in conversation through the window. She is not letting us in. The bell rings out, and we obediently form into lines and await the order to file into the classroom.
Zeta sits beside Mary at the double desk just in front of the boys; Vinny and Ed always take the back seat. The rest of us file two by two into the remaining desks and are silent until the master instructs us to stand for prayer. The first prayer is to welcome Mary back and pray for her father’s passing. Three Hail Marys, the ‘Our Father’ and the ‘Glory Be’ are said before we are released into regular schoolwork for the morning. I do not turn my head to look at Mary throughout the morning, and I am somewhat anxious about the upcoming break time.
At the sound of the bell, I head out the door with Kate, Louise, and Eleanor, leaving Zeta to cope with Mary. We continue to the play yard, a paved square area just in front of the bicycle shed. Within minutes, Mary comes around the corner with Zeta at her side. They are both engaged in conversation, and I wonder what they could be saying to each other at this time. Someone from our group calls for a game of ‘Rounders’. This is our favourite game, a bat-and-ball game played between two teams. We do not have any bats at our school, so we use our hands instead and adapt the game to our needs using a soft handball. The game begins; Mary walks away from Zeta’s side to take up one of the four base corners. Usually, there would be a few minutes of argument about who stood where. The game started swiftly. After fifteen minutes of throwing, running, chasing, and shouting, we walk back to class with Mary amongst us, gasping for breath and boasting about throws and catches.