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Authors: Shane Dunphy

Wednesday's child (page 2)

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‘This isn’t helping anyone, Mrs Kelly,’ I said, barely aware of a tremble in my voice.


‘You’ll listen now, you bastard,’ she said, her eyes fixed on me, trying to gauge my reaction.


‘I was listening anyway!’ I shot back, feeling desperate.


She blinked at that, uncertain.


‘I was just chatting to Geraldine here, and we were saying how, if we could get ye all to club in together and pay a bit off each of the bills, it’ll keep the services switched on. Weren’t we, Geraldine?’


The redhead looked over at me in disgust, but nodded and grunted assent. The knife remained poised over the seeping arm.


‘Could I have the knife, Mrs Kelly?’ Joe asked, sitting up shakily.


He had his hand outstretched towards the huge woman, who was also trembling, the tears welling up in her eyes. She slowly placed the knife in his hand and sank down on the floor amidst the cigarette butts, the dust and the old newspapers and sobbed, rocking rhythmically. Joe sagged on the couch, panting, the knife blade held away from himself. I stood up and walked over to Geraldine, squatting down in front of her so that I was in her line of vision, obscuringRichard and Judy. There were tears streaming down her cheeks, although she wasn’t making a sound. I took the smouldering cigarette from her and had a long drag on it. I hadn’t smoked seriously in years, but suddenly needed one badly. I held her hand gently.


‘I need to ring Dr Maloney to have your mam admitted as soon as possible. Today.’


She nodded, crying more openly now.


‘I’ll organise with the ESB and with Bord Gáis to have the bills paid in instalments, but you need to get your brother and sister to help with it. Can you do that?’


She nodded again. Mrs Kelly had begun to sing ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ as she rocked. She sounded like a little girl.


‘You have a beautiful baby, Geraldine. She needs to be safe and this isn’t a place for a child. You know that – maybe better than anyone.’


She nodded again. I pulled on the cigarette and flicked it into the fireplace. I stood up.


‘I’m going to make a phone call. Will you be okay to watch your mother till I come back?’


Again a nod, this time accompanied by a sniff. I went over to Joe and grabbed his arm, hoisting him up. He came to consciousness as I lifted him and half-walked and was half-carried to the door. I dumped him in the passenger seat of the car and called the gardaí, asking for the squad car to come around, then called the office of Mrs Kelly’s psychiatrist.


It took another two hours for her to be taken away. She remained locked in that childhood place all the time. Geraldine returned to sullenness, embarrassed by the vulnerability she had shown and the agreement that she should not be raising her child in the horror she herself had been raised in. I stood out by my car in that strange, tormented housing estate as the ambulance pulled away. The gardaí had taken Joe home and I was alone. I smoked a cigarette provided by one of the ambulance men and felt empty and tainted. Short of having a sick woman placed in hospital, had I achieved anything; had Ihelped in any sense at all? I sat into my car and started the engine. As I drove out of Doonan, the only thing that I knew was that there are sometimes situations in social care where there are truly no winners. And the day was only halfway through.


I ate lunch in a small café. I didn’t know anyone in the office well enough to meet them for lunch, and anyway, I felt the need to be alone, to regroup my resources before my afternoon appointments. I had returned to fieldwork after two years of teaching college, training childcare workers, because I felt that I was getting out of touch with the work at the coal-face. I thought that I would benefit from reimmersing myself in the day-to-day realities of child-protection work. After a morning at the sharp end of it, I was already wondering if I had done the right thing. Was I really able for this after so long? What did I hope to achieve? Could I get the teaching post back if I prostrated myself before the Head of the Faculty? I pushed such thoughts aside and pulled myself together. I’d give it the week and then consider the best approach – outright begging, threats or simple bribery.


I paid for the meal and walked the short distance back to the office. Rosalind, the office administrator, was still at lunch when I came into the lobby, and I walked through and up the stairs to the work area. Downstairs was made up of Rosalind’s office, a meeting room, an observation room and a playroom.There were eight rooms upstairs, a small office for the team leader, a kitchen, a bathroom and five larger offices for the rest of the team. The rooms were all small and cramped, most with only one phone for often three or four people. I was based in the room at the top of the stairs. I had my diary open and was flicking through it as I came in the door of the room, but a voice stopped me in my tracks.


‘Hi Shane.’


I looked up and saw a slim woman sitting in my chair. I looked at her blankly.


Her name was Melanie, and she was a social worker. She was, in fact, one of the reasons I was there, as she and several other workers were being moved to other projects.


And she was seated in my chair at my desk.


She was a talented worker and, from what I had gathered in the few brief conversations with members of the team before my arrival, had established herself squarely as a powerful matriarchal figure. She had subsequently been offered the job of setting up and managing a new team in a nearby village. This meant that she had a whole building at her disposal from which to work. She seemed, however, to feel the need to retain claim over her desk. I looked aghast at my small collection of stuff – a jam-jar full of pens, a notebook with phone numbers in it, a hardback ledger in which I logged phone calls – a collection that had been shoved aside to make room for a large pile of files and loose papers.


‘You didn’t think I was giving up my desk, did you?’ she asked, smiling condescendingly.


‘Yes, I did actually,’ I said, still frozen to the spot.


‘Well, I need it,’ she retorted, pulling over the phone and punching in a number aggressively.


I stood and watched her, unsure what to do. Around the same age as myself (late twenties), she was slim and striking. She dressed like she had put a great deal of thought into it, and I would learn that her colours always matched and her accessories were always co-ordinated. Her dark hair was thick and worn shoulder length in an expensive cut.


She was fiercely territorial and I had been told, by her as well as by some of the other staff, that no one would ever fill her shoes. I was aware that she had a small group of followers among the social workers, and that there had been open aggression between her and the team-leader until this new post came up. It seemed that conflict was something that she did not go out of her way to avoid.


As she began her phone conversation, I reached over her and grabbed my stuff, pulling a chair up at a neighbouring desk. A numbness settled over me like a flame-proof blanket. To tell the truth, I was enraged. In this type of work, the office desk and small amount of miscellaneous junk are a person’s base of operations and therefore sacrosanct. You don’t screw with them. Although I was new to the team and new to the job, I still warranted this small amount of respect. Melanie, however, was an unknown quantityto me, and I knew enough to realise that she had the capacity – at the very least – to cause me a world of unwanted pain. I decided not to get into direct confrontation with her … yet. There were political ramifications that were too complex for me to fully grasp. I would wait and see how best to handle her.


My afternoon appointments were all with the local Travellers’ Centre, and I was getting up to leave when my mobile phone rang. The number that flashed up was our sister-office in a neighbouring village. I wasn’t due to visit there until the following week, so was surprised to hear from them.




‘Shane Dunphy?’




‘Hi. This is Mary Jeffries, Team Leader with the South Team.’


‘Hi. What can I do for you? I don’t think I’m due to meet you until next Wednesday.’


‘No … no you’re not. It’s just that an emergency has come up.’


She spoke with a broad Dublin accent in quick, short bursts. I could tell already that I would like her.


‘An emergency?’


‘Yes. Have you read the file on Gillian O’Gorman yet?’


‘Barely at all.’


‘Well, it seems she’s had some sort of an episode at school. They need somebody to get out there.’


‘Okay. I have some other meetings lined up, butthey’re nothing that can’t wait. Should I go alone? She’s never met me before. If she’s in an agitated state …’


‘Is there anyone else there?’


I looked over at Melanie. The thoughts of going on a visit with her after the morning I’d had did not fill me with confidence. I heard a tread on the stair and Andi, the other Community Childcare Worker on the team, strolled in. Andi was a warm, friendly, open-faced girl who tended to dress in a slightly hippy style, all tie-dyes and paisley dresses and trousers. Her hair was long and curly and she always seemed to have a bounce in her step.


‘Andi, are you free to do an emergency visit?’ I called over.


‘I can be.’


‘Yeah,’ back to the phone. ‘Andi can come out with me.’


‘Good stuff. Call me when you’re done.’


I filled Andi in on what I had been told, which in fairness was virtually nothing, and waited while she cancelled her meetings. I used the phone in her office when she was finished (since Melanie was still talking loudly into the phone in mine) to make the single phone call required to cancel my own appointment, and we headed down to the car park.


‘I’ll drive,’ Andi said as we left the building.


Andi drove a bright red Mini. We headed out of the town towards the village where Gillian O’Gorman went to school.


‘I’m afraid that I don’t know a whole lot about this kid,’ I admitted.


Andi nodded, fiddling with the radio until she found a station playing traditional Irish music. She whistled along through her teeth, tapping the steering wheel in an off-beat rhythm.


‘I play the bongo drum, y’know,’ she said, looking at me from the corner of her eye.


I looked at her in bemusement. ‘I didn’t know that.’


She nodded again, battering the steering wheel some more and whistling without much tunefulness.


‘I bet your neighbours love that. Not to mention any people who may be unfortunate enough to live with you.’


‘Oh, Muriel doesn’t mind. She plays the harmonica, so we get on fine.’


I had to laugh at the mental image of Andi (I imagined her house-mate as a similar hippy type) sitting up into the small wee hours of the morning playing terrible traditional music to one another and smoking joints made of home-grown hashish.


‘Well that’s nice. I’m glad you have each other to entertain. What do the respective boyfriends think of all the racket?’


She snorted through her nose.


‘I don’t have a boyfriend. I have Muriel. She’s my life-partner.’


I nodded again.


‘Good for you. Was it her harmonica playing that attracted you to her?’


She guffawed aloud at that, thumping me good-naturedly on the shoulder.


‘Andi, as fascinated as I most certainly am at the concept of a pair of trad-loving, hippy musicians, I am meeting one of my clients in around ten minutes, and I’m at something of a loss. My only memory of her file is that it was fucking huge and that she has almost every imaginable problem. What exactly are we walking into out here?’


‘Now that is a big question.’ Andi pulled a pouch of tobacco out of a baggy pocket in her parka and tossed it into my lap. ‘Roll me one of those.’


I proceeded to make her a roll-up, realising for the first time that I would be working with a gang of nicotine freaks. Andi had switched into professional mode and was giving me the edited highlights of the O’Gorman file.


‘The O’Gormans have been known to the social work department for years. Libby, the mum, is a single parent, a manic-depressive and probably borderline schizophrenic. The dad disappeared years ago, and Libby won’t talk about him. Sinéad, whom you’ll meet (she’s one of Melanie’s clique), was the social worker on the case.’

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