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Authors: Shane Dunphy

Wednesday's child (page 10)

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‘I don’t know! You’re the social worker.’

 

‘I’m not a social worker. I don’t mean it like that. What’s she doing?’

 

‘Come with me.’

 

I was brought down a long corridor that ran the length of the building. The place had a clinical quality I didn’t like, all white walls and disinfectant smells. Gillian and Libby were in a room at the very end of the passage, as if they had been tucked as far away from the general population as possible. Libby was flushed and reeked of alcohol. She was sitting in front of a portable television set and barely acknowledged me. But my gaze was drawn to Gillian. Even though she had only been gone for ten days, the impact of that time sat heavily on her. I immediately regretted my decision not to look for them. Gillian had lost a lot of the weight she had gained. She was filthy and dressed in what looked like articles from a charity shop: ill-matching, garishly coloured clothes and an ugly, outsized pair of platform shoes that she tottered about on ridiculously. I was embarrassed for her. Shehad just started to take pride in her appearance again.

 

What struck me most about Gillian, though, was her face. There were scratches down both her cheeks that I guessed were self-inflicted, and she had an expression of such fear and anguish that I had to fight the desire to go to her and just hold her, hug away all that anxiety and unhappiness. I felt terribly angry with Libby.Fuck you, I thought.We were doing so well. But you just couldn’t leave well enough alone. You couldn’t just let her be.

 

I didn’t beat about the bush.

 

‘Libby, I’m taking you and Gillian home.’

 

‘What if I don’t want to go?’ she retorted.

 

‘Gillian wants to.’

 

‘Gillian wants what I tell her to want. Isn’t that right, Gill?’

 

Gillian looked like a startled animal and jumped at the sound of her name. She was pacing the room as if it was a cage. As I watched, she wrapped a strand of hair around her fingers and wrenched it out in a clump.

 

‘See? She doesn’t want to go anywhere with you.’

 

‘For the love of God, Libby, will you let me bring you back home? Who’s looking after the dogs?’

 

‘I left them enough food.’

 

Gillian had begun to whimper as she paced, still ripping at her hair. Several patches of scalp were noticeably bald, and some of these had open sores where she had continued to pick at herself even after all the hair was gone.

 

‘Please Libby, I’m asking you nicely.’

 

‘Will you fuck off and leave us alone!’ she shouted, turning on me sharply.

 

This was just too much for Gillian. She let out a blood-curdling scream and flung herself at the wall as hard as she could, thumping off it with force. She rebounded onto the ground but did not stop. She gathered herself up and rushed at the wall that was adjacent, slamming into it with her head.

 

‘Now see what you’ve done?’ Libby said, reaching over and turning up the volume of the television so that she could hear over Gillian’s screaming.

 

For a second I really did not know what to do. I was appalled at Libby’s attitude and sickened at Gillian’s display of self-hatred. Without even realising I was doing it, I reached over and spun Libby’s chair around so that she was facing her daughter, who screamed again and threw herself to the ground this time, smashing her fists into the tiles as hard as she could.

 

‘Look at her, Libby. Look at what you’re doing to her.’

 

Libby spat at me, catching me full in the face.

 

‘It’s you that’s doing her, you dirty bastard,’ she hissed and swung the chair back around to the television.

 

I wiped the saliva off with my sleeve and turned to Gillian, who was sobbing bitterly now and preparing for another assault at the structure of the building. Just as she was about to launch herself at the wallagain, I stepped in front of her and she thudded into me. I was surprised at how hard she hit me, and staggered back with the momentum. She was taken by surprise and stepped back, looking at me with shock and horror. She didn’t stop for long though. Her face crumpled and she bared her nails at me like claws.

 

‘Bastard!’ she howled and attacked me like a wild dog.

 

Her nails raked my cheek and she tried to bite me on the face, but I had her by the wrists and spun her so that her back was to me and her arms crossed over her front. She tried to butt her head back at me, but I raised my shoulder and stopped her, and dropped to the floor so that it would be harder for her to struggle. That infuriated her even more, and she screamed and kicked and bucked and spat as hard as she could. Libby turned up the volume as high as it would go. The refuge worker, who had been standing outside the door all this time, came tentatively in.

 

‘Are you all right?’ she shouted over the noise of Gillian’s protestations and Libby’s daytime soap.

 

‘I’m fine. Would you mind staying until she calms? I need someone to witness that I haven’t hurt her.’

 

The woman nodded and stood there, looking very uncomfortable.

 

Gillian was pumped full of adrenaline, and it took her forty-five minutes to wear herself out. When I felt her sag, I spoke very gently to her.

 

‘I’m going to loosen my grip now, Gillian. I needyou to promise that you won’t go off on one again when I let you go. Can you promise me that?’

 

‘Yes.’ Her voice was barely audible.

 

I let go of her arms and she slid off me onto the floor in a heap. There were no tears – she had none left to cry. She just lay there, inert.

 

I suddenly realised that my left leg had gone completely numb, and I had to ask the woman to help me to stand up. I hobbled around the room for a few moments until the pins and needles subsided.

 

‘Well, are you ready to take us home now?’

 

Libby was standing by her chair, the television switched off, with an irritated look on her face.

 

‘Whether he’s ready or not, Mrs O’Gorman, you are no longer welcome here,’ the woman said tersely.

 

‘Get your things, Libby,’ I said. ‘I think you’ve outstayed your welcome.’

 

‘Oh, Shane – they’re in the back garden.’

 

Dympna smiled her dazzling smile at me.

 

I found the three children huddled under a grove of trees in the large garden. It was a warm spring evening, and we were sitting together on a bench that was suspended from a wooden frame by thick chains, making a kind of group swing. The sun was slowly sinking below the horizon. Ibar crawled over onto my knee and remained there. He was black from rooting in the dirt for millipedes, one of which he had cradled in his cupped hands. All of us were quietas we watched the red disk dip below the rooftops, bathing us in a golden mist.

 

‘Sunsets always remind me of Mummy,’ Victor whispered, to no one in particular.

 

When Cordelia didn’t respond, I said: ‘Why’s that, Victor?’

 

‘Don’t know. Just, when I see one, it always makes me feel kind of sad for her.’

 

Cordelia sat up and rounded on her brother.

 

‘Ice-cream makes you feel sad for her, Victor. So does Kylie Minogue, snakes-and-ladders, Domestos and Marmite. You’re so weird!’

 

‘Hey, leave him alone, Cordelia,’ I said, as gently as I could while keeping the reproach in my voice. ‘He’s entitled to his feelings. Okay, seeing as you seem to feel so strongly about it, you tell us what reminds you of your mum.’

 

‘No!’

 

A sulky silence followed, during which Ibar held up his latest pet for me to observe.

 

‘Lotsa feet,’ he said earnestly.

 

‘It’s a “millipede”, Ibar,’ I said, knowing damn well that he would not even attempt the word. ‘Mill-i-pede.’

 

‘Lotsa feet,’ he said slowly back at me, looking at me as if I were the biggest idiot he had yet to encounter in his short life.

 

‘Everything reminds me of her too,’ Cordelia said, her voice thick with suppressed emotion.

 

‘That’s what I always mean,’ Victor said. ‘All those thingsdoremind me of her. I can’t help it!’

 

‘She was always around, you know? We did everything together, so everything reminds me of all the stuff we did.’

 

‘That makes a lot of sense,’ I said.

 

‘She wasn’t just, like, my mum. She was my friend too, you know?’

 

‘Tell me.’

 

‘I don’t know if I want to. It’ll … make me cry …’

 

Silent tears spilled from under her eyelids and ran down her cheeks.

 

‘There’s not a thing in the world wrong with crying, Cordelia. Let it come. I think it’s been waiting a long time to.’

 

‘I miss her …’ she said, squeezing the words out, and then the grief came in a tidal wave and immersed her, and she was unable to speak.

 

I wrapped my arms around her and Victor, who had gone limp and very quiet, and we sat there on the swing that gently swayed in the cool evening breeze as the sun continued its descent and Ibar looked impassively at his siblings and played with his Lotsa feet.

 

After a while Dympna came out. She assessed the situation, nodded to herself and scooped Ibar up into her arms. He went without complaint, holding the insect up for her inspection (‘Ooo, lovely,’ she said. ‘We’ll put him with the others.’). She took Victor by the hand and he allowed himself to be led into the house. I looked down at Cordelia, who had burrowed herself into my chest. My shirt was soaked throughwith her tears, but I made no comment. She would let me know when she was ready to talk.

 

Presently she sniffed and pulled herself away from me. I produced a small packet of tissues from my pocket and handed them to her.

 

‘You came prepared,’ she said.

 

‘Used to be a boy scout.’

 

‘I doubt that.’

 

‘You know me so well.’

 

‘You just don’t seem the type.’

 

She dried her eyes and blew her nose, then leaned back into me. The sun was gone now, and the first stars were twinkling in the darkening sky.

 

‘Starlight, starbright …’ she said.

 

‘What about the rest of it?’

 

‘I’ve wished so many wishes that have never come to anything – I just don’t bother any more.’

 

‘Maybe your luck’s changing.’

 

‘I’m in foster care. My dad is a drunk and my mother is dead. My brothers are totally insane. I’ve got no friends … in fact, you’re probably the best friend I’ve got, and you’re paid to hang out with me. Hard to see any positive change in that story, wouldn’t you say?’

 

‘It’s kind of a grim picture all right, when you put it like that.’

 

‘What other way is there to put it?’

 

‘Well, you’re in a foster placement which is happy to take the three of you. That’s very rare, Cordelia, believe me. You are actually really lucky to be stilltogether. And this is a really beautiful place. Your dadisdrinking again, but I think he’s fighting it as hard as he can, and he’s doing that because he loves you and wants you to get back together again. Alcoholism is a disease, Cordy. Just like cancer or any other serious illness. He needs to get better, and when he does, you’ll be back with him. Your brothers are interesting guys. Victor is very intelligent. He just finds it difficult to communicate sometimes. I think that the problems you’ve all had have left him nervous and afraid. Ibar is five. That’s it. He’s dealing with things the way a five-year-old does. The world is still a big, exciting, new place for him. He probably doesn’t really get much of what’s going on. Once he has you and Victor as constants in his life, he’s happy enough. He needs to know he’s loved and safe, that’s all. And yes, Iampaid to see you, but tell me: what time is it?’

 

‘I dunno. Around seven o’clock, I think.’

 

‘I finish work at five.’

 

‘So why are you here?’

 

‘I thought I’d go and visit some friends.’

 

She hugged me tight for a second.

 

‘Hmm. You sure can talk the talk.’

 

‘It’s not just talk. Tell me about your mum. Was she like you?’

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