Together Again

There it was, the scrape of the curtain pulley. Rosemarie braced herself as the unkind morning light pounced on her closed eyes. Why did the day have to start so early? You would think the old folk with empty diaries would have earned their rest. Now was her chance to say she didn’t feel well and ask for breakfast in bed; Ronnie had encouraged her to get his money’s worth. But she felt her customary shyness clamp down on her throat and the attendant was gone. Rosemarie didn’t like to think of how much that reticence had cost her over the years. By a happy twist of genetics her daughter Melissa turned out to be brash and demanding, a fact which never ceased to please Rosemarie.

Taking it nice and slowly, she got up and used the en suite bathroom. Then she tackled getting dressed. The tricky bit was getting anything onto her feet. If she could just go barelegged, it would save a whole lot of effort. Finally, with her tights on, hair brushed and glasses ready on a chain for the morning crossword, Rosemarie made her way to the mirror by the door. Fuchsia had always been a good colour on her, today she wasn’t so sure. When did her hair get so white? A dab of lipstick brought her face back into focus.

Breakfast was the best meal the place offered and Rosemarie was pleased to still have a good appetite. She was having diplomatic trouble choosing a table though, with two groups vying for her company. People with good hearing were in demand. Coming into the dining room was always a tense moment. The best thing was to be first there and let the others play musical chairs. This morning the Crowleys had made it down first. They beckoned to her and she took a seat between them. The dining room had the appearance of an English B&B, the kind of place she would have stayed in with Maurice thirty years before. Look what you’re missing out on darling, she thought. Bert and Tess looked at her with matching what-did-you-say expressions. Luckily they were distracted by the morning girl, Rosemarie’s favourite, come to pour their tea.

Conversation ran out as breakfast finished. Rosemarie looked despairingly at the scattered crumbs and spots of jam on the tablecloth. It was too blowy again for a walk; three-and-a-half hours until lunch. She excused herself and trundled over to reception with her walker to pick up the newspaper. Mr Farley beamed in his ingratiating way and handed her a letter. Letters were like gold dust these days. Rosemarie tried not to look at it, almost snatching the envelope out of his hand. She laid it face down on her walker tray and hurried to the conservatory, where she plonked herself down in an armchair half turned away from the rest of the room.

It was from Loretta, postmarked London. Her handwriting hadn’t changed since boarding school, bold and artistic even then. The three years they overlapped at the Ursuline Convent had been the happiest of Rosemarie’s life. Despite the age gap they had spent most of their free time together nattering and laughing, celebrating their joint relief at having escaped the stifling atmosphere at home. Since then they had never lived in the same country, and after Loretta took off with her husband on a succession of postings abroad there were years between visits.

The words danced in front of Rosemarie’s eyes – coming home, got the brochure, room for me. She blinked away the tears and reread from the beginning. Loretta wanted to come and live in Glengoran Lodge. She was selling her house, under pressure from the children to move somewhere supervised. The time has come to return to Dublin sis, if you’ll have me. Always so careful to be thankful for the small comforts and pleasures left to her, Rosemarie had tried hard to stay positive since she moved to the lodge. Now she sank back in her armchair to bask in the long lost feeling of happiness. A laugh bubbled to the surface and Rosemarie covered her mouth like a schoolgirl. The Cully sisters, together again.

Circle of Stones

On her way across the green in the middle of her estate, Julie stopped and looked around her. She was due to leave for Cork with her mother in a few minutes and she wasn’t supposed to be outside. She gave up the pretence of walking somewhere purposefully. There were some children out playing, doing stunts on their bikes with an improvised ramp. They paid no attention to her. Julie knew every family in all the houses in this part of Chestnut Glen. She had sneaked out here because she wanted to say goodbye to something – she wasn’t sure what. All the kids her age were either still in bed or off doing their Saturday jobs.

This is it, she thought. I’ve let them take over and this is where it’s brought me. She sat down heavily on one of the small boulders, dropped there in a rough circle not by a glacier but by the developer of the virgin estate back in the 1960s.

Cork. The only person she knew there, apart from her mother’s awful cousin, was her first love from Irish College three summers ago. What sweet letters Marty used to write. Those few weeks away on the west coast had been exotic, enchanted. Not only the language was different – the air, the sky, the rain. Marty was staying with a neighbouring family. They used to walk home from the dances together, the boys from his house, the girls from hers. She remembered his pale face in the grey light of dusk. For a moment, she let her imagination take off. Dreaming up rescue scenarios had become her favourite pastime.

Somehow she would bump into him in Cork, and he would be filled with concern for her plight, realise he still loved her and decide to help her out. Marty would have matured beyond his years, he would have a proper job and his own place to live and they would set up family together. No, she didn’t like the last bit. The baby didn’t fit well into that picture.

Better if she stole some money from her mother’s cousin and escaped. She could rent a caravan somewhere by the sea in Wexford. There she would lay low and wait to turn eighteen, as long as the baby didn’t come first. She would turn up at the local hospital, a mysterious case. The staff would be intrigued. A nurse would take pity on her, offer her a room. They would become friends – and the baby, the baby. Julie felt the muscles across her swollen stomach tighten. It’s not looking good baba, she whispered.

If I had a giant camera, I would zoom out, Julie thought. First you would see this circle of stones in a field surrounded by houses, then up and up, the surrounding suburbs, the coastline, the hinterland of farms. Then Ireland surrounded by clouds and swirling blue sea, farther and farther away until the world looked quiet and harmless and nothing mattered anymore.

It was time. Julie walked slowly back towards the house. Her bag was packed, the adoption agency papers inside it. She would remember that walk; find echoes of it throughout her life. Each step leading her away from something open towards something closed. She recognised it when she walked down the aisle ten years later and the bitterly cold day when she walked into the doctor’s office to get her biopsy results. The moments when you realised the world was turning and you just had to walk with it.

King and queen of fifth class

Competition is healthy, right? The will to win pushes human beings to excel and for those with the right attributes and drive, the reward is the sweet taste of success. But too much emphasis on competition brings out its destructive force. It can distort and poison relationships, even society.

Here is an example of what a regime of competition did to a class of 10 and 11 year olds in Dublin in the 1980s. Our teacher was an old-fashioned disciplinarian who clearly missed the days of corporal punishment. He used to stalk the classroom with a metre stick and bring it crashing down on the desks of chattering children, shouting “watch out” just before he made contact.

The teacher had what Catholics call a “special devotion” to St. Teresa of Avila. Beware of anyone with a special devotion. We heard stories about her wonderful qualities – purity, humility, and obedience – ad nauseum. Enough already we would have shouted only that particular Americanism hadn’t yet reached Irish shores (nor had insubordination in the classroom).

Our school master imposed a system of continuous tests on us. Not a day went by without tests. On the wall he had meticulously put together a detailed chart where he recorded every pupil’s name and score in every single test. On a separate sheet there was a ranking of the running totals. At a glance we could see the order of achievement for all 28 children. There was no escaping it. So what did we do in this oppressive atmosphere? We became very competitive. More than that, we developed our own feudal society based on our rankings.

At the top of the pecking order came the King and Queen – the two brightest children in the class who alternated first and second place between them. The next half-dozen kids on the list were the Knights and their job was to defend the King and Queen whenever the teacher left the room and we all slipped into open animosity, expressed through ruler fights. The rest of the children were Commoners. When the teacher unwittingly seated a Commoner in the Knights’ section, he or she became a slave and had to fetch milk at break time, sharpen pencils, defend the royals and so on. Interestingly all the roles disappeared when we went out into the yard to play at lunchtime.

But inside the classroom, we stuck rigidly to the social order we had spontaneously created. Not quite Lord of the Flies but King and Queen of Fifth Class.

The Dogleg Shortcut

By Clare O’Dea

To the untrained eye he was just a man checking his bicycle but Kelly knew the signs. She stopped dead. These men could be old or young, fat or thin, dark or fair but they all radiated ill intent. You could read it in the line of their shoulders, the way they stole a glance at you or the way they affected not to look your way. They moved too slowly; they were bad actors.

The dogleg shortcut halved the journey time to school – and there he was just at the bend, waiting. If she took this route she could be there in 11 minutes door to door, just in time for assembly. Going down to the main road, over the bridge and back through the park would cost her precious minutes and Kelly could not afford to be late for school today. Mrs. Kearney would be at the door taking names as usual and that would be her second poor punctuality mark this week. She just couldn’t do detention on Friday. Missing the inter-schools match was out of the question.

Kelly looked up and down the footpath but there was no-one around. Cracked chestnuts littered the ground at her feet, revealing their gleaming russet hearts. Treasure like this should not go to waste. If only she could gather them up, go home and skip this day. But no-one would understand; she was locked into the routine. The heavy schoolbag weighed down on her bra strap and she shifted it further out to the edge of her shoulder.

He was wearing a navy tracksuit and his hair was red – a young one. Kelly stooped to tie her shoelace, giving him a few more seconds to move on but still he fiddled with the bicycle chain. You’re not fooling anyone you bastard, she wanted to shout. The girls would never forgive her if she missed the match. She was in top form, playing the hockey of her life.

The flashing wasn’t so bad, it was creepy and ugly but it was over quickly. The bad part was the fear. What if this one reached out and grabbed her? The thought of being overpowered terrified her. Most of the time you could ignore the fact that men were stronger, it wasn’t relevant. But in this case it was all too relevant – a fact that squeezed her throat tight, stung her eyes and set her heart hammering.

One step down the lane meant danger, one step down the footpath meant disgrace. And then she remembered her hockey stick. Without being aware of her decision she began to advance down the shortcut. Behind the high walls on either side of her were back gardens. No-one would be gardening in this weather at this time of day. She slipped the stick out of its cover and held it loosely in her right hand like a spear.

Thirty more steps, twenty – the man straightened up and turned towards her. Kelly couldn’t look behind her for help; she didn’t want to show fear. Part of the trick was to behave normally. Treat him like a normal passer-by there’s a chance he’ll behave like one. She wouldn’t know until she reached him whether there was anyone coming in the other direction to save her. He started tugging at his waistband. Kelly felt a chill running up her back.

Hurrying down the steps into the school building, Kelly heard the bell ringing inside. She opened the door just as Mrs. Kearney came out of her office. “Are you on the warpath Kelly?” Mrs. Kearney seemed amused. “Pardon?” Kelly stopped and stared for a moment. Then she noticed she was still gripping the hockey stick with both hands. “You look like you’re going to hit someone with that stick dear.” “Just getting into the zone for the match,” Kelly answered, walking past the vice principal.

She went straight to the cloakroom to change into her indoor shoes. Anita was there. “So Kelly, what’s the strategy for Friday? They’re a pretty strong team,” she said, unwinding a long colourful scarf. Kelly sat down on the bench to unlace her boots. She felt a cold new energy circulating in her veins. “I’ve been thinking about it and I reckon it all comes down to one thing – attack is the best form of defence. They won’t know what hit them.”