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Authors: Shane Dunphy

Wednesday's child

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PENGUIN BOOKS

 

Wednesday’s Child

 

Shane Dunphy worked in child protection in south-east Ireland for fifteen years. He now tutors on childcare courses in Waterford City. He lives in Wexford with his wife and two children.Wednesday’s Childis his first book.

  Wednesday’s Child 

SHANE DUNPHY

 

 

PENGUIN BOOKS

 

PENGUIN BOOKS

 

Published by the Penguin GroupPenguin Ireland, 25 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland(a division of Penguin Books Ltd)Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, LondonWC2R 0RL, EnglandPenguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USAPenguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario, CanadaM4P 2Y3(a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.)Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia(a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd)Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi – 110 017, IndiaPenguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Mairangi Bay, Auckland 1310, New Zealand(a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd)Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa

 

Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, LondonWC2R 0RL, England

 

www.penguin.com

 

First published by Gill & Macmillan Ltd 2006Published in Penguin Books 20071

 

Copyright © Shane Dunphy, 2006All rights reserved

 

The moral right of the author has been asserted

 

Set in 11.75/14 pt Monotype Garamond

 

EISBN: 978–0–141–90073–5

 

Monday’s child is fair of face.Tuesday’s child is full of grace.Wednesday’s child is full of woe.Thursday’s child has far to go.Friday’s child is loving and giving.Saturday’s child works hard for a living.But the child that is born on the Sabbath DayIs bonnie and blithe and good and gay.

Children’s Folk Rhyme

 Contents 

PREFACE

 

PART ONE

 

Chapter 1

 

Chapter 2

 

Chapter 3

 

Chapter 4

 

Chapter 5

 

PART TWO

 

Chapter 6

 

Chapter 7

 

Chapter 8

 

Chapter 9

 

PART THREE

 

Chapter 10

 

Chapter 11

 

Chapter 12

 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

 Preface 

This book began life as a series of case studies for a doctoral thesis, and only very gradually, through the prompting and encouragement of others, became the story that you have before you today. It is a record of my experiences with three special families. It is not told as entertainment, but to show that in a society that is often insular and unwilling to look upon harsh realities, courageous struggles are going on daily, often unacknowledged, fought by those who dwell on the peripheries of our world.

 

I have been involved in social-care for more than fifteen years, and this book involves experiences taken from right across that time-span. For ease of reading, I have compressed the narrative into a single time-line. You will read the story of one year in the life of a child-protection worker, based in an office somewhere in Ireland, during a period in which what we now call the Health Executives were called the Health Boards. In reality these cases did not happen concurrently and could have occurred at any time across that fifteen-year period. To protect the identities of the children, adults and professionals involved all geographic details, family specifics, names and sometimesgender have been altered. All experiences did, however, happen.

 

InWednesday’s ChildI discuss a number of other professionals I worked with. These are mostly composite characters, amalgamations of workers I have known and had the pleasure to work alongside. I have learned from everyone I have shared an office with, and I have tried to demonstrate that here.

 

I have reproduced procedure as well as I can recall it. If you notice any errors, they are all my own. Different regions operate different methods, and if the book reflects that, so be it.

 PART ONE 

First Week Blues

 

I went down to the town with my work boots on.

 

Man said: ‘We got some work right here,

 

For those that got a mind, my son.’

 

Well I worked until my hands was raw

 

And my back was aching, stiff and sore.

 

Man said: ‘Them’s the first week blues,

 

And, son, it just gets worse from here!’

 

‘The First Week Blues’, traditional blues song

 1 

The day had started off badly. Thinking about it, I should have seen the signs, but back then I was dangerously optimistic. It is a character flaw that I have since corrected. I had arrived at the offices of the Child Protection Department at 10.30 a.m., and had immediately been taken to see Joe Strand, a social worker. Joe was a tall, fat man from Cork. It was my first day working on the team, so I didn’t know Joe at all, but I could see that he was running a fever and was very ill. His breath rattled in and out of his well-padded chest and he was bathed in a sheen of sweat. He told me that a call had come in several minutes earlier to say that there was a disturbance out at the Kelly house in Doonan. He thought we should go out immediately, and asked me would I mind driving – he wasn’t sure he was able.

 

I had been assigned my caseload only an hour before that and therefore had had no time to acclimatise myself to the various children and families I was representing. The file on the Kellys was vast, and I couldn’t even remember the names of the four children in the family. I did know that they had the capacity to be extremely challenging and that a disturbance could only mean that we were headinginto a potentially violent situation. As we walked to the car, Joe told me that the gardaí would be meeting us at the house, but that they wanted us to go in first to try and evaluate the situation. They had indicated that Mrs Kelly was in the house, along with at least two of the older kids, one of whom had an infant. The nature of the disturbance was still uncertain.

 

We drove through the town. It was a sunny morning, and early shoppers were going about their business. I tried to gather my thoughts. My caseload was made up of twelve cases, which ranged from multi-agency families like the Kellys to children in residential care who were at risk of their placements breaking down, to a couple of children in foster care who were proving to be problematic to their foster parents, and finally to the running of a group for children who were exhibiting challenging behaviour in school.

 

As I drove past the Church of the Sacred Heart on the main street, a mother and her small son, a curly-headed toddler, were standing at the curb waiting to cross. I was chatting inanely to Joe. To be honest, I was beginning to worry about him. He seemed to be drifting in and out of consciousness, and did not seem to be really aware at times of what was going on. I attempted to keep my tone light, but I was also trying to keep him with me. As we were about to drive past the gate of the church, the toddler slipped his hand out of his mother’s and shot out into the line of traffic.

 

It’s strange how things seem to slow down when a crisis occurs. I recollect seeing the child’s face break into a wide, innocent grin. I remember him jumping in a loping, clumsy manner off the curb of the footpath, and almost losing balance as he hit the tarmac of the road. I saw the mother bringing her now empty hand to her mouth as she started to scream at the escaping child – interestingly, she didn’t run after him. The child’s frame crossed as if in slow motion in front of my car. I roared a profanity and hit the brakes as hard as I could.

 

I have very mixed views on religion. You don’t remain in my line of work without coming to think that there’s something out there, although you start to believe that it’s not always altogether good. However, on this sunny morning, as I headed for an appointment with leering, capering insanity, somebody was watching out for me. The bonnet of my car stopped within centimetres of the toddler who, oblivious to the danger, continued to run awkwardly across the street. The mother was still standing on the footpath, watching the small figure of her child disappear into the crowd of pedestrians on the opposite side of the road.

 

‘Would you ever watch out for your child?’

 

Joe had rolled down his window and was shouting at the shocked woman. Somehow, he had returned to consciousness for a few brief moments and had caught the near death of the adventurous toddler. His dulcet southern tones seemed to shake her out of herlethargy, and she suddenly broke into a run, crossing in front of us. I watched her go, and then returned pressure to the accelerator and moved forward.

 

‘Jesus, that was a fuckin’ close one,’ I said, wiping the sweat from my brow.

 

‘Lucky you weren’t going a few miles an hour faster.’ Joe was leaning his head against the head-rest and closing his eyes. Within moments he was gone again.

 

Doonan is a small village. It looks like something you would expect to see inThe Quiet Man, surrounded by green fields, with white-washed thatched cottages here and there and pubs with names like the Horse and Hound. It is, however, a bad place. We would never visit there without letting the people back at the office know where we were, and we would never go alone. Two minimum.

 

The estate where the Kellys lived was up a short hill, past a small local shop. It had a horseshoe shape and was made up of fifteen houses, built in the late 1980s by the local County Council. Every single family in these houses had a social worker assigned to them. Some, like the Kellys, had more than one. It was almost a badge of honour.

 

I parked the car outside number eight, the Kelly homestead. I parked it pointing toward the exit of the estate, in case we needed to make a fast escape. Before we got out of the car, I rang the gardaí on my mobile phone, to tell them we had arrived and thatwe would call them if we needed backup. This was normal practice for a visit involving two agencies. They were parked two hundred yards up the road, they informed us, and were ready. I looked at Joe. He was completely unconscious, his head lying at a peculiar angle, his mouth wide open, a rivulet of saliva trickling down his chin. His breath smelt of illness, and sweat ran down his face in large droplets. I wondered for the hundredth time why he had come into work that morning. I nudged him in the chest with a finger.

 

‘Joe, we’re here.’

 

He stirred painfully and sat up, the hair on the back of his head matted and tangled.

 

‘Okay, boy. Let’s see what the story with this crowd is.’

 

He moved to open the door.

 

‘Listen Joe,’ I said, catching his arm. ‘Are you up for this?’

 

He looked at me in surprise, his wide, bloodshot eyes a sharp contrast against the pallor of his skin.

 

‘Oh aye,’ he said, heaving himself out of the car.

 

The estate looked like something from a war-zone. Two gardens had burnt-out cars outside them. One house had a front window boarded up. There were several children playing out on the small, sparse green, all of them with the blank, desensitised look of the abandoned. The houses themselves were three-bedroomed bungalows, built box-like with thepebble-dashed walls that all local-authority houses of the period seem to have. As we moved around the car towards the open gateway to the house, the group of children gathered around us at a safe distance. I noted two small boys, both blond, with the familial likeness of brothers. They were dressed in threadbare tee-shirts and ill-matching shorts, and were filthy. With them was a little girl with dark pigtails and a red gash down the side of her left cheek. She looked to be about five years old, and had with her a child of indeterminate gender who was barely out of infancy, and who observed us with slack-jawed speculation, a black finger jammed up its right nostril and a slime of drool covering its chin.

 

I dragged my attention back to number eight as the sound of unintelligible shouting came from within, the garbled words being screamed by a hoarse, deep-voiced woman. Joe stumbled against me, his breath ragged gasps now. He muttered something I could not hear. I wasn’t interested in trying to decipher his ramblings any more. There were more immediate concerns at hand.

 

As we approached the front door, it was opened by the largest woman I had ever seen. She stood around 5' 11'', a good half-inch taller than me, and just slightly shorter than Joe, but it was her girth that was the most striking. I was stocky, but she dwarfed me, and she had incredibly muscular arms and shoulders. She was wearing a grey tee-shirt and a shapeless tartan skirt. But what was most frightening about herwas her face. She exuded a kind of insane rage and her eyes blazed with an unquenchable hatred for real and imagined slights visited upon her by the world in general. Her hair was a mess of grey and black and it sat on the top of her huge head in a topography of knots and tangles that seemed to mirror her inner turmoil perfectly. I put her age at mid-fifties, but she could have been anything from forty to seventy. I realised that I had stopped in my tracks and was simply staring at her. Joe was slumped onto my shoulder again.

 

‘What?’ she bellowed, her whole body clenching with the force of the scream, her biceps bulging. ‘What do yiz want here? Get the fuck away from my house!’

 

I was speechless. I was suddenly aware that Joe had raised his head and was looking at her with half-lidded eyes.

 

‘Hello, Mrs Kelly. We heard there was a bit of a row goin’ on. We wondered could we help at all?’

 

She glowered back at him. He had a half-smile on his round face, which dripped with perspiration from the strain.

 

‘Could we …’ he had to catch his breath, ‘could we come in for a wee while, Mrs Kelly? Just to talk, like?’

 

She grunted and stepped back inside the darkness of the hallway.

 

The first thing that hit me was the stench. The house reeked of stale cooking fat, cigarette smoke andshit. The hallway was so gloomy that I couldn’t make out much beyond a pile of what looked like old clothes against the wall. The hall was in an L-shape, and there were five doors leading off it. The woman pushed open the first door to the left, and we moved into the living room. The room was a simple rectangle, with a bare floor covered in tiles of a colour totally obscured by dirt. There was an ancient suite of furniture around the periphery of the room which had probably once been beige but was now a dirty brown. A large and new-looking television was in the corner, and the glowing embers of a fire were in the hearth. The fireplace itself was covered in about an inch of dust and ash, and was cracked and broken. In one of the armchairs sat a young woman with flaming red hair, smoking. An overflowing ashtray was balanced on the arm of the chair, and her gaze was focused on the television, which was showingRichard and Judyin a peculiar, orange tinge. Beside the young woman was a baby’s pram. Mrs Kelly pushed me from behind and I staggered towards the couch. She deposited herself on the armchair in front of me and fumbled for a cigarette from a box of Majors.

 

‘Mrs Kelly, my name is Shane Dunphy. I’m a community childcare worker and I’ve been assigned to your family. I’m here to help in any way I can.’

 

She struck a match and set fire to the tip of the cigarette. She grinned at me, which was almost more frightening than her previous fury.

 

‘I don’t think you can help me at all, young fella.’

 

‘You seem very upset.’

 

She laughed, billowing smoke in great clouds over me.

 

‘Well let me tell you this then, you little fuckin’ bollix. I need to pay me electric bill or they’re goin’ to cut us off. I need to pay me gas bill, or they’re goin’ to cut that off. I need to buy coal for the fire and I need to buy food for the table. Can you reach into your fat-arse pocket and help me now, Mr Fuckin’ Health Board?’

 

I cleared my throat and looked at Joe, who was apparently asleep beside me. He muttered something and shifted restlessly.

 

‘I’m not here to offer that kind of help, Mrs Kelly. But I can give you some advice on how to get some help. The community welfare officer—’

 

She was on her feet and nose to nose with me so fast I didn’t even see her move.

 

‘I fuckin’ spoke to the community welfare officer yesterday mornin’, you stupid fucker! He said he can’t help us any more! He says that a month or so with no electric will do us no harm! He says that every time the bills come in we get in trouble!’

 

Her breath reeked of tobacco, sour milk and bile. As she shouted, her spittle rained on me like bitter hail. I blinked and tried not to seem as scared as I was.

 

‘Will ye shut the fuck up? I’m watchin’ this,’ the woman in the corner called at us. I heard another match being struck as she lit a cigarette. I glanced ather for an instant before turning my attention back to the clear and present danger in front of me, who was now growling like a rabid dog and frothing round the edges of her mouth. I smiled weakly at her and moved back slowly on the couch. Joe was stirring again beside me.

 

‘Maybe we should just try and stay calm. Maybe I could ring the community welfare officer on your behalf, explain the situation …’

 

She turned back to her armchair. The cigarette in her hand had burnt down to the butt. I looked over at the redhead.

 

‘I’m sorry, I didn’t get your name.’

 

‘That’s cos I didn’t tell you it,’ she snapped, never taking her eyes off the screen.

 

‘It’s Geraldine.’ Joe was with me again.

 

‘Geraldine, I’m pleased to meet you. Is that your baby?’

 

She nodded.

 

‘May I have a look?’

 

I stood up. Joe slid down into a half-lying position without my support, and stayed there. I moved over to the pram, keeping half an eye on the bulk that was now shaking and frothing. I looked into the pram. A baby of maybe three months was lying on a stained sheet, half-covered with a ragged shawl. It was awake and looked at me with large blue eyes. It had been sick, and white semi-digested milk lumps were dried on to the side of its face.

 

‘Boy or a girl?’ I asked.

 

‘What?’

 

‘Is your baby a boy or girl?’

 

‘A girl. Christine.’

 

‘May I?’

 

An indiscriminate shrug met my request, so I lifted the child out of the pram and went back to the couch, where I had to perch on the edge so as not to sit on Joe. The child continued to look at me. It gurgled and waved its chubby arms and kicked its legs. It was wearing a grey sleep suit which had probably started out life white, but which was black at the elbows and bum. I could tell that the nappy was full.

 

‘I think she’s due a change, Geraldine. I’ll do it if you like. Don’t get up.’

 

She hadn’t moved or even registered my statement. The changing bag was beside the pram and I grabbed it and pulled it towards me. I found a semi-clean towel on the top of the bag and spread it out on the couch, shoving Joe’s head aside to make room. Christine had a very slight nappy rash, but nothing too bad, and I quickly cleaned her and put on a fresh nappy. The nappies were a decent, named brand, as were the wipes and cream. I washed the puke off her face and freshened her up with the wipes: behind the ears and under the arms, her legs and feet. She seemed well fed and not unhappy. I sat her on my knee and looked back at Mrs Kelly, who was now rocking and swearing quietly.

 

‘How long has your mother been like this, Geraldine?’

 

The redhead sighed and used the remote control to mute the television.

 

‘She went mad last night. The ESB bill came. We’ve no money. She can’t stand the stress.’

 

I nodded and gave Christine my index finger. She grasped it firmly and pulled at it. Reflexes seemed to be present and correct.

 

‘There’re a few of you living in the house here, aren’t there? The youngest is fourteen, right? She’s the only one at school. Can’t you all club in and help her? Even if you aren’t working, you’ve got the dole or Lone Parents or whatever …’

 

She was looking at me with real anger.

 

‘You people make me fucking sick. You think you know it all, coming here in your big car, telling us how to live our lives. I don’t have the money for the bill. The others don’t have it either.’

 

I looked back at her unwaveringly.

 

‘How much is the electricity bill?’

 

‘It’s not just one bill. There’s the gas as well.’

 

‘Okay. Bills. How much do you owe?’

 

A roar broke off my line of thought as Mrs Kelly thundered from the room. The door that she had wrenched open slammed off the wall, puncturing a hole in it that crumbled plaster all over the already grimy floor.

 

‘I’d say it’s about four hundred euro now.’

 

‘For two bills?’

 

‘We owe for the last ones too.’

 

I nodded. The cycle of poverty. I stroked thebaby’s head and watched as she tried to focus her big eyes on my hand.

 

‘If you could even pay something off them, they’d make allowances. They don’t actuallywantto cut you off. Give them something to work with.’

 

She fumbled for another cigarette.

 

‘Yeah, well fuck you.’ She mumbled around the filter.

 

‘Geraldine, come on! I’m trying to help you here. I’ll ring them if you want, see if we can’t work this out.’

 

She was shaking with rage and her cheeks were flushed with the embarrassment of the conversation. I could tell that she wasn’t stupid, and that she had a sense of pride that simply did not belong in this slum. It would be knocked out of her the hard way. It was a wonder it hadn’t been knocked out already.

 

‘Whatever. I don’t care any more.’

 

With a thunderous roar Mrs Kelly lumbered back into the living room, this time brandishing a bread-knife.

 

‘Oh shit,’ I muttered.

 

She was glaring at me with a savage intensity, her left hand bunched into a fist, her right hand clamped around the handle of the knife. I looked quickly at the blade. It was slightly rusted and far from razor sharp, but it would be enough to do some damage with her obviously manic strength behind it.

 

‘Now you big bastard!’ she seethed through clenched teeth and a constricted throat. ‘You will listen to me!’

 

She drew the jagged end of the blade over her arm in a swooping arc, grating the flesh rather than cutting it. She grunted and did it again. The blood came immediately, running in thin sheets down her forearm.

 

‘Mrs Kelly! Please!’

 

I quickly placed the baby back in the pram. She didn’t make a sound, unaccustomed to being hastily dropped. I sat back down. I didn’t want to threaten the woman by standing. She growled deep in her throat, and stood there, seemingly for a second unaware of what she was doing, where she was, even of my presence. Geraldine had gone back to her television. She looked mildly upset by the turn of events, but not so much as to lose track of the morning programme. Mrs Kelly slowly drew the blade over the flesh just above her wrist. I watched, my mind working rapidly. She was purposely not hitting the artery. She wasn’t trying to kill herself – yet. I shot a lightning glance at Joe, but he was still out of it. The woman before me was growling again, and continuing to make red, raw grooves in her arm. I could hear the sound of the drops spattering on the floor and pulled my legs away from them.