No 14 - May 2001
The Most Beautiful Girl in the World
from There Is A Time
This world made you sad
Took the bright dreams you had
And woke you on dark mornings
To worriers and warnings - When You Go
The harsh sound of my parents arguing downstairs woke me. I lay on my pillow looking up at the ceiling, trying to figure out what the row was about. The faint hum of an electric saw from Whelan’s timber yard nearby made it hard to concentrate. I propped myself up in the bed and tried to listen more carefully. Just then my sister Kay came into the bedroom, looking very worried. ‘Get up quick Johnny. Something awful is going on downstairs. Mammy is acting very strange.’ She whispered this so as not to wake my three younger brothers sleeping in a set of two-tiered bunks opposite my bed.
My parents went silent when Kay and I entered the kitchen. Though it was a bright summer morning outside, our small back window allowed only a little light into the room. I looked at my mother sitting in an armchair near the fireplace, then at my father standing with his back to the window. ‘What’s going on? What’s all the noise about?’
My father shoved his fingers through his hair. ‘It’s nothing. Go back up stairs. We’re just having a bit of an argument, that’s all.’
My mother tossed back her head and laughed. ‘Don’t mind him. Stay where you are!’
I looked at her. She wasn’t herself. Her eyes were blazing and her body movements were full of wild energy. Normally she was quiet and never made faces like this. I felt frightened and curious at the same time. ‘What’s wrong with you, mam?’
‘There’s nothing wrong with me, love. Your father has just been badgering me because I bought a copy of the bible the other day. I wouldn’t mind but I found him reading it last night himself, the hypocrite!’
My father rubbed his neck. ‘It wasn’t just that. I’m worried about your health. You’ve been getting up at all hours of the morning again. You know what that led to in the past.’
My mother jerked forward. ‘You’re the one who put me away.’
My father took a deep breath. ‘I did it for your own good. I had to do it. You weren’t well.’
My mother glanced at Kay and me. ‘Don’t worry you two, I’m fine. I won’t be leaving you again. I’ve never felt better in my life.’
My father took a step towards my mother. ‘I know you’re alright, love. You just need to rest, that’s all.’
‘I don’t need you telling me what to do!’ My mother rose from her chair and started readjusting brass ornaments on the mantelpiece. While she was doing this she gave me a peculiar smile. Then she turned and stared at my father with a twisted look on her face. ‘Do you know something? I love that boy over there far more than I ever loved you!’
I felt my heart catch in my chest and I found it hard to breathe. My father tried to make light of the remark by laughing. This annoyed my mother. She started yelling at the top of her voice. My father tried to calm her down but she became more and more hysterical. Kay started crying. My father asked us to go upstairs again, so we left the room.
In the hall Kay wiped her eyes with the bottom of her cardigan and said she was going to call on our sister Joan, who was staying at a friend’s house in the neighbourhood. While she was heading for the front door I got my jacket from a hook in the hallway and left the house also.
Instinctively I started walking in the direction of the docks. Ten minutes later I was sitting on a mooring bollard in the centre of the dockyard overlooking the Shannon river. I tried to put my confused thoughts in order but couldn’t manage it. I kept thinking of what my mother had said and I was unable to make any sense of it.
The squeal of a low-flying gull made me shiver. I looked out over the wide river and began to cry. After a few moments I pulled myself together and wiped my eyes with my fingers. I looked up river. My gaze came to rest on a line of sally trees on the left bank. This was a regular place where my friends and I went each year to chop down trees for the May bonfire. I remembered a fistfight I’d had there a few years before with Billy Moran after he said he’d heard that my mother had been in the “nuthouse”. Though he was three years older than me, I gave him a black eye and a bloody nose.
A dredger started to leave the enclosed docks’ area. I watched it make its way through the open sluice gates and chug a slow course out into the middle of the river, then my eyes drifted back to the docks. There was just one ship docked there, a black freighter. For a moment I forgot myself and thought of making my way down to where it was moored, to see where it was from and to check out what its cargo was. Checking out ships in the docks was a big hobby of mine going back to when my father was a merchant seaman. Now however the new situation with my mother came back to me, so I put all thought of amusement out of my head.
My eyes drifted around the docks. I recalled the first time I had come here four or five years before. I was only six or seven years old at the time. My mother brought me down to see my father’s ship coming in. It was a windy day. The black tam I was wearing blew off my head and ended up in the choppy water beside the ship as it was being moored. One of the officers on board got a long pole with a hook at the end of it and fished the tam out of the water and held it out to my mother. Just as she was taking it from the hook my father came on deck and waved to us. As soon as the gang-plank was lowered he came down onto the quay and kissed my mother. Then he brought me on board the ship and took me down to the engine-room, where he worked as a maintenance engineer. When he returned me to my mother he put his hands through her hair and told her that she was the most beautiful girl in Limerick. My mother laughed and pulled away from him. “O, so it’s only Limerick now, is it? When we met first you told me I was the most beautiful girl in the world.”
The dredger started hauling up its first load of mud in the centre of the river. The strain of the tightening pulleys and chains created a loud grating noise that echoed around the river area. Gulls and pigeons rose up from the water and hovered in the blue sky above the boat. I stood up and started making my way home.
Passing through Henry Street I thought of going to the Redemptorist chapel to say a prayer for my mother. I went to a side shrine to the Sacred Heart and knelt down on the hard marble. My mother had great faith in the Sacred Heart. Some years before she had developed a boil on the back of her neck that became so inflamed she had to take to her bed. The pain was so bad she asked me to go to the Sacred Heart shrine to say a prayer for her. I said the full five decades of the rosary. When I returned to the house she was sitting up in bed with a smile on her face. The boil had burst and she told me that her recovery was due to my prayers.
I looked up at the gold framed picture of Jesus now and studied the exposed heart between the nail-pierced hands. The thorns around the heart and the tear-shaped blood-drops dripping from the deep gashes of the wounds made me shudder. I started praying, mechanically. I went through three Hail Marys, then stopped and couldn’t go on. A lump came to my throat and tears ran down my nose. I looked around to see if anyone was looking at me. There wasn’t. I tried to get back into the relief of crying but the tears wouldn’t come. Again I thought of saying a few Hail Marys, but I didn’t have the heart for it. Instead I started talking to the picture below my breath. I poured out my heart to Jesus and begged Him to make my mother better. Then I got up from my knees and left the church.
When I arrived home my sisters and a friend of the family, Nancy O’Brian, broke the news to me that my mother had been taken to St Joseph’s in an ambulance. Nancy put her hand around my shoulder. ‘Don’t fret, love, don’t fret. Your father’s with her. She’ll be alright in a few days. Then we can go up and visit her.’
A week went by before my mother was well enough to receive visitors. As the time approached for us to go and see her I began to feel uneasy. It wasn’t going to be like a normal visit to a hospital, as when my brother Michael was in Baringtons’ having his appendix out. St Joseph’s I knew well. It was situated beside Limerick jail just up the street from the Christian Brothers’ school that I and my brothers attended. With a few classmates I had once climbed the back wall of the place to look inside. We spotted a few patients with crew cuts and blank eyes. We laughed at them and called them “nutcases”.
My father allowed only three of us to accompany Nancy on the first visit; my sisters Joan and Kay, and myself. Once we entered the front gate and started making our way to the recuperating ward my fear started to leave me. When my mother finally appeared before us I was relieved to find that she didn’t look like any of the patients I remembered from the past. She was tired looking and she spoke with a slight slur, but otherwise she was her old self. She kissed and fondled our faces and told us that she would be coming home soon. Nancy did most of the talking during the visit. But now that the ice was broken I decided to return to the hospital by myself a few days later.
My second visit to St Joseph’s was on a bright sunny day. My mother was delighted to see me. She took my hand and led me out into the sun. We walked around the grounds talking about home concerns. At one point she asked me how my father was coping. ‘He’s a good man, your father. Don’t think he isn’t. He’s a very good man.’
We came upon a small chapel. My mother suggested that we go in and say a prayer. As we were leaving the church we were approached by a disturbed looking patient who put his hand out to my mother. He was drooling at the mouth and had a severe eye-twitch. My mother took a packet of Gold Flake cigarettes from her cardigan pocket and handed him two. ‘Make sure none of the others take the spare one from you, Tom.’
On the way back to the ward we came upon a grey building with barred windows, where some of the most disturbed patients in the hospital were kept. Because of the heat of the day, the windows were raised at the bottom. My mother went up to one of the dark openings and looked through the bars. A group of grey-haired women with bulging eyes clustered round the window inside muttering and mumbling to themselves. My mother asked one of them to get Annie. A few moments later a white faced old lady with snow-white hair appeared at the bars, looking very agitated. When she spotted my mother she smiled and grunted. My mother put her hand through the bars and touched her wrinkled hand. ‘I want you to meet my son, Annie. I told you about him before. He loves music, like yourself. Since he was a small boy he’s never stopped singing.’
The old woman glanced at me and grunted, then smiled at my mother. My mother turned to me. ‘Annie’s a distant relation of yours on my side of the family. At one time she was considered one of the finest musicians in Limerick. She played the church organ. Shake her hand.’
I reluctantly put my arm through the bars and took the old woman’s hand. I could feel her bones through her wrinkled skin. She smiled at me and then turned to my mother and grunted. My mother touched her hand. ‘Look after yourself, Annie. I’ll call and see you again tomorrow.’
From the pebbled pathway my mother glanced back at the barred window. ‘Annie’s been here for years. None of her family visit her any more. You can’t blame them, for she hardly recognises any of them. I don’t think she realises I’m related to her, but I call to see her anyway. She’s an angel. They’re all God’s angels up here.’
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