Read Wednesday's child Online

Authors: Shane Dunphy

Wednesday's child (page 3)

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She looked puzzled at that statement. I doubted that anyone had ever stated the job description ofthe community-childcare worker so baldly to her before. The truth is, there is no specific job description – it depends on the worker and the region, but as far as I could ever understand, that was it. You represent the child and are the specific liaison between the child and any other official agency they are in contact with.


‘So, do you want to talk about how you’re doing today? Andi and I came out because we heard you were having a tough time, and that maybe you needed some help. I’m here. Andi is here in case you felt a little scared talking to me, seeing as we never met before. Would you like it if I asked Sister Assumpta to just let us hang for a few minutes?’


A barely perceptible nod. But a nod for all that. I was in.


‘Sister, could you leave me and Andi with Gillian? You can keep the door open and wait outside, but you see, my job is to be here just specially for Gillian, and I need her to tell me how I can help her right now. Would that be okay, Gillian?’


A small nod. More obvious this time. I know it may seem like I’d been wading through treacle with this girl, but this was actually alarmingly swift progress. I felt the tension begin to ease from me. I let emotion flood back in, and did a quick internal check of how I was doing. This was a trick I had developed while still a student. We tend to be very aware of how we are making the children we work with feel, how they are responding to us, but we often forgetto examine how they are makingusfeel. As a human being, you need to constantly reflect on your own emotional landscape. I quickly did just that. It had been a tough day so far, but I was still more or less intact. I was struck by the child’s courage, and knew that I was responding to it. She had been in a physical confrontation earlier in the day, an incident that must have exhausted her, and now she was being hassled by a stranger from the Health Board, an organisation that had probably caused her little more than grief in the past. It was remarkable that she was dealing with me at all. I was aghast at her physical condition, and was struck by a deep sense of anger that she had been neglected to the point that she was like this. I was also drawn to her eyes. There was a deep inner strength and a real humanity in those eyes. And a well of pain. She was hurting. It seeped from her like pus. I could feel it as an electrical pulse, this child’s hurting.


Assumpta moved around the chair and out the door, which she left open. I heard a chair scraping the floorboards as it was pulled up outside. I stood, hearing my knees pop and slowly walked over to a chair by the wall, which I moved over to within a safe distance of Gillian. I nodded at Andi, who took a chair and moved to within a similar distance. At this proximity, I could see that Gillian had a fine growth of hair over her face and arms. This was a clear sign of advanced anorexia – it meant that she had lost her natural layer of body fat. The bodycompensated by producing the coating of hair, to keep in warmth. I had only seen this once before, and that child had not survived. People often forget that anorexia, if left untreated, can be fatal.


‘So, Gillian,’ I said, trying to sound as upbeat as possible, ‘how can I help?’


She looked away from both of us for a moment, suddenly embarrassed by the attention and putting on the precocious huff of adolescence. I smiled to see it. At least it was normal behaviour.


‘I don’t want a worker,’ she said finally, her face flushing so much through the pallor, I was again worried she might pass out.


‘Is it because I’m a guy?’


Again she looked away, gripping her sides tightly. Eventually she nodded, still not meeting my gaze.


‘Well, I can understand that. If I were a girl, I probably wouldn’t want me for a worker either. But you know, we’ll get used to each other. And we don’t have to rush into anything either. I mean, if you’re worried I might be weird or something, we can meet outside the school and go for coffee or something, where there’s lots of people around. You’d be completely safe. I’m not gonna try and get you to talk about anything deep or really personal or anything like that. Whatever you want to talk about is okay by me. It’ll be your time. But there is one thing that Idohave to ask you to do for me first. I’m gonna have to ask your mam to take you to see the doctor.’


She shot a glance at me that held a fair degree of venom.


‘I’maskingyou as your new worker, but I think you know that I canmakeyou go if I wanted to. You look like you haven’t eaten in a really long time, Gill, and you may need to take some medicine to help you to build up your strength again. You know, a tonic or something.’


She looked at her knees, her lower lip stuck out in a ferocious sulk.


‘You seem pretty mad at me for saying that.’


‘You people always lie!’ she hissed.


‘Why do you say that?’


‘You tell me that we don’t have to rush into anythin’ and then you tell me that I have to go and see the doctor! And you tell me that Mammy will have to come and you don’t know my mammy. She’ll be mad and there’ll be trouble. And she’ll go mad when she knows that they have a man seein’ me and you’ll get it. She’ll do you good!’


I tried not to look too bemused by this outburst.


‘Gillian, I’m afraid that your health can’t wait for us to get better acquainted. I wouldn’t be a very good worker to you if I let you go on right now without a doctor having a look at you. I’m not going to ask you to eat today – I said I wouldn’t – but you are very close to making yourself really sick. I don’t mind you being mad at me. And I expect that your mum will be cross about me seeing you at first, even though I think that letters have been sent out to tell herthat I’ll be working with you, so she should know.’


‘We don’t always get letters because of the dogs.’




I wasn’t sure what that meant, but figured I’d get a chance to ask about it later.


She continued to sulk.


‘One thing that I will never do, Gill, is lie. I’m telling you right now about the visit to the doctor because it has to happen, and pretending that it doesn’t won’t help anyone. So I’m telling you straight up. With me, there are only two rules. When you’re with me, you don’t hurt anyone, me and you included, and you try your best. I follow those rules, and I’ll ask you to. Part of not hurting is no lies. Lies hurt, and I’m not into that. I reckon you’ve been lied to enough.’


She made a kind of snorting noise.


‘So what happened today?’


‘With Maggie?’


‘Is that her name?’




‘So. You want to tell me what happened?’


‘Not really. She was makin’ fun of me, so I did her. Did her good too.’


‘So I hear. What was she saying to you?’




‘Must have been more than nothing for you to do her so good.’


‘She was callin’ me names and stuff.’


‘Bad names, huh?’


A nod.


‘She was sayin’ that we’re all mad. That my mammy lets the dogs ride her.’


I said nothing to that. There didn’t seem a right thing to say.


‘Them things aren’t true. Them are bad things to say about a person’s family.’


Gillian looked up at me, and all the fight had gone out of her.


‘Will you take me home, please?’


It was as sudden and as immediate as that. It was as if her battery had run down. I figured that in fact that probably wasn’t far from the truth: the outburst of the day, coupled with her anger at me for telling her of her imminent visit to the doctor had effectively used up all her reserves of energy. She had burnt herself out. She sat in the seat, her eyes glazed over, her shoulders hunched up. I called for Sister Assumpta and she got Gillian’s coat and bag, and we walked her down to the car. She said not a word, and climbed into the back without protest. I turned to Sister Assumpta before getting in myself. I couldn’t hide the anger in my eyes, and she stepped back a bit when she saw it.


‘How could she be allowed to get to this stage, Sister? You’d better tell me that you’ve been calling and calling for help, because I’ll chase this one up and someone will have to answer for it. You seem like a nice lady and this seems like a good school, but so help me if I find that she has been left to starveherself because she’s the local redneck’s kid and no one gives a good god-damn, I’ll be coming back out here with the fucking inspector and a fucking warrant and we’re going to have us a very, very close look at your child-protection policies and procedures. I’m not arrogant enough to believe that I can have the school closed down, but believe me, someone will lose their job.’


She nodded, and I knew from the expression on her face that if there was any fault here, it didn’t lie with her.


‘I have been ringing your offices on an almost weekly basis. You are the first person to come out in two months of calling.’


‘I’ll check that, Sister.’


‘I would expect no less.’


I nodded at her, some of the anger dissipating.


‘I’ll see you soon.’


She turned and walked back into the school building.


‘You strapped in, Gillian?’ Andi asked as she started the engine.


No response. It was really as if the Gillian I had seen for that short outburst was gone, had fled deep inside. I glanced back, saw that she was safely harnessed and nodded at Andi. We pulled out of the schoolyard and turned out towards the Dublin road.


The O’Gorman homestead was a kind of shack set deep within many acres of farmland. It had to beaccessed down a long dirt track with tall trees and overgrown ditches on both sides. The only sounds as we moved across the terrain was the cawing from the many rookeries dotted around the perimeters of the fields and the occasional burst from a song thrush coming from the ditches on either side of us. At one point a rickety wooden bridge had to be navigated, and I wondered if it would support our weight.


The Mini’s arrival at the O’Gorman home was accompanied by the noise of furious barking and slavering from four dogs of indeterminate breed that were all tied up to dilapidated vehicles around the property. The front yard contained the remains of several old cars, and a pile of tattered couches towered over us near the front dry-stone wall. It was hard to tell how old the property was. It looked as if parts of it had been built at various points in the nineteenth century, but one section to the rear certainly seemed to be contemporary. While the dogs were unable to get beyond the perimeters of the O’Gorman demesne because of the chains to which they were attached, they had free rein within its confines. It meant that no one without a death wish could attempt to gain access. The animal closest to my window was rearing up on its hind legs and doing its utmost to reach me. It looked worryingly like a Rottweiler, although there appeared to be traces of Alsation in the mix as well. It was truly the ugliest and most vicious beast I had ever seen.


‘I see what you mean about not getting the post,’ I said.


Gillian was already climbing out.


‘Could you ask your mum to come out and see me for a moment, Gillian?’ I asked.


She ignored me totally, wandering among the snarling dogs as if they weren’t there. The dogs for their part ignored her too. At one point she moved so close to one it collided with her as it leapt in the direction of the car, causing her to stagger, but the dog did not even so much as look at her, correcting itself and continuing to snarl and growl in our direction. She picked herself up and disappeared around the side of the house. Even to these animals, Gillian seemed barely worth a thought.


‘I suppose we wait for her mum to come to us,’ I said to Andi.


‘You’re the boss.’


We waited.


Half an hour later the dogs were still not tired of trying to get loose from their chains to devour us, and Gillian’s mother had still not appeared.


‘Well, any more bright ideas?’ Andi asked.


‘Let’s wait a bit more.’


It was nearing four o’clock.


I knew what was going on. We were being tested. Both Gillian and her mother were aware we were out there – from the noise of the beasts they had to be. The test was: how long would we stay? I could be a stubborn bastard, and I had nothing better to do.

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