Read Wednesday's child Online

Authors: Shane Dunphy

Wednesday's child (page 5)

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‘The bus from town gets in at half past four, doesn’t it?’ Betty asked.

 

Nods answered her question.

 

‘Only a couple of minutes to wait then.’

 

The bus was only ten minutes late, and when it stopped three people disembarked.

 

None of them was Max McCoy.

 

I looked over at Betty. The atmosphere in the car had become tense. Betty and I knew the children were trying to keep whatever game was being played going, and they knew that we could clearly see that something was wrong. I started the engine.

 

‘I’m going to drive back out to the house,’ I said. ‘I think that when we get there, we’ll talk again about what’s really going on.’

 

Cordelia started to speak. I cut across her before she could get the first word out. I had sat back for long enough.

 

‘I’d like you to just think about things for now, Cordelia,’ I said, keeping my tone level but firm. ‘You’ve already spun us one yarn this afternoon, and I want to hear the truth from now on. We’ve done it your way. Now it’s time for you to do it our way. Okay?’

 

I saw her eyes glaring at me in the rear-view mirror. She was barely keeping the anger in check, but then I reckoned that Cordelia was very good at keeping things in check. She had had a lot of practice.

 

When we were back out at the McCoy cottage, I killed the engine and turned to the children. Victorwas simply staring at his hands, his body slouched as low as it could go in the seat. He seemed to be trying to make himself as small as possible, sinking into the fabric of the car, seeking to disappear. Cordelia was looking straight ahead, past me and down the road as if looking for an escape route. Betty sighed deeply. Ibar was still silent and implacable.

 

‘So what’s going on?’ I asked.

 

‘You don’t know where Max is, do you?’ Betty said.

 

Victor began to mutter something unintelligible. Cordelia said: ‘He should be here. But sometimes he … isn’t. Just lately he’s not been well.’

 

‘He’s been sick?’ I asked.

 

‘Yes. But not like the flu.’

 

‘Has he been drinking again?’ Betty asked, the pitch of her voice prompting me to place a hand on her arm. I knew why she was angry: she had invested a lot in this family, but by venting at the children she would only aggravate an already difficult situation. Besides, she would be shooting the messenger.

 

‘A bit. But he’s been down a lot too.’ Cordelia seemed to have decided to come clean. ‘Sometimes I think he’ll hurt himself. I’ve tried to get him to talk, but he won’t always talk, even to me. I’ve been worried. We’ve been worried.’

 

She put her arm around Victor, who in turn embraced Ibar, who looked at him as if he were mad and shrugged off the overture. I tried to think what to do. Max would probably show up in an hour orso, but in what condition? It struck me that his regular absences were, more than likely, times he had gone on a bender. His arrival would probably be an intoxicated one. I knew from experience and from my training that trying to talk to or reason with a man in the throes of drunkenness was an utter waste of time and energy. Of course Max may have just gone into town and missed the bus, but that was unlikely. The crux of the matter was that we had three minors in our care who, to all intents and purposes, had been abandoned. There was only one thing to do.

 

‘Betty, would you ring the office and tell them what’s happened?’

 

‘Will do.’

 

‘Do either of you two have a key?’

 

‘No,’ Cordelia said.

 

‘I can get in,’ Victor said quietly.

 

He raised his head and I realised that my initial diagnosis of him was all wrong. He was not intellectually disabled, or even slow. I saw a keen intellect, and suddenly a smile illuminated his face and he was no longer the slack-jawed pre-adolescent who had been with us all afternoon.

 

‘When he doesn’t come home, I get in through the back, and then I let Cordy and Ibar in. If I didn’t do that, we’d be stuck outside until he gets back.’

 

‘Can you show me?’ I asked.

 

‘Yes.’

 

He led me around the side of the house. The grass was unkempt and the back yard was overgrown withmoss and was treacherous. He pointed at a small top window that led into what must have been the kitchen.

 

‘There.’

 

‘You can get in there?’

 

‘Yes.’

 

‘Okay then. Here.’

 

I made a step by cupping my hands together. He put his foot into it and I lifted him up so that he could grip the rim of the window. It opened easily – the latch was obviously broken. He gave me that mischievous smile again and then he was through, wriggling into the narrow space as if he were a snake. I waited a second and then the back door was opened. He motioned for me to come in.

 

Inside the house was gloomy in the early evening light. The kitchen was neat and tidy, though sparsely furnished. The linoleum was faded but appeared to have been recently washed. Victor was moving ahead of me through the shadows. I followed him, and found him standing in the door of the living room. I saw what he was looking at and, without thinking, placed my hand on his shoulder. He didn’t flinch this time.

 

A man I took to be Max McCoy was sprawled half on, half off the couch. The curtains had been drawn, so the room was in darkness, but I could see the almost empty bottle of cheap vodka on the floor near his hand and the puddle of vomit congealinginto the carpet. The stench in the room was appalling and I had to take shallow breaths for fear of gagging.

 

‘He does this sometimes,’ Victor said, his voice little more than a whisper. ‘I think he does it because he’s sad. I think he gets lonely for Mummy. I do, and I don’t even remember her all that well.’

 

‘Has he been doing it a lot, Victor? Have you and Cordelia and Ibar been left to look after yourselves a lot?’

 

‘Cordy looks after us. She looks after Daddy most of the time too. Daddy says we’d be lost without her.’

 

‘Mmm. Well, Cordelia needs to be looked after as well, you know. She’s only a kid herself.’

 

‘I know.’ I heard the words catch as he fought to keep tears at bay and I squeezed his shoulder.

 

I walked over, opened the curtains and the window to let in the air. I then walked over to Max McCoy and shook him, gently at first but progressively harder. Eventually he started and looked at me through fuggy eyes. He was probably in his early forties with short salt-and-pepper hair and several days’ growth of beard. He was dressed in ill-fitting jeans and a check shirt.

 

‘Mr McCoy.’ I said it louder than I needed to, but I wanted him to understand me clearly, or at least as clearly as he could in his present condition. ‘Mr McCoy, I am a community childcare worker with the Health Board. I need to take Cordelia, Victor and Ibar into care this evening. You are not in a conditionto look after them. I’ll be back out tomorrow to talk to you some more, when you’re sober. Do you understand?’

 

‘Y … yes … yes …’

 

Victor was still standing at the door. A loud banging announced Cordelia’s desire to gain access. I had forgotten that she, Ibar and Betty were still outside. Max seemed to be trying to reclaim dominion over himself, but he was fighting a losing battle. I heard Victor opening the front door, and then Cordelia pushed past me and embraced her father, crying quietly. He looked at me with such shame and self-disgust, I had to look away. Ibar shot past us down the hall to one of the rooms, like an animal into a bolt-hole. Betty was standing beside Victor and motioned with her head for me to step outside. I followed her out to the front step. Victor lingered just inside the porch, watching Cordelia and his father, seemingly sensing that he was not required.

 

‘There’s a woman out by the coast road who will take them tonight. She had them when he was in getting dried out before.’

 

I nodded. ‘It doesn’t look like he stayed dry for long.’

 

Betty said nothing, fumbling for a cigarette with shaking hands. I took the box from her and tapped out a cigarette, lighting it for her. There were tears in her eyes and she wiped them away, taking the cigarette and inhaling deeply.

 

‘I should have seen this coming. I was supposedto be the contact worker! How could I have been so stupid?’

 

‘You know how manipulative drunks can be. And those three have been colluding with him. Cordelia looks like she would be a very daunting adversary. You saw what they wanted you to see. The only reason we caught it now is because we called unannounced. It was pure chance.’

 

‘It doesn’t excuse the fact that I fucked up, and fucked up badly.’

 

‘I can’t absolve you of that, Betty. You’ll just have to beat yourself up for a while over it. But of course, you know as well as I do that there’s nothing to be gained by torturing yourself. Learn from it. Be more vigilant next time. You know what, though?’

 

‘What?’

 

‘There probably isn’t a damn thing you could have done differently. He would have slipped up eventually, or he wouldn’t. We caught him. The kids will be cared for this evening, and we’ll come out here tomorrow and see what we can do. That is what is important.’

 

She sniffed and smiled at me. I gave her a quick hug and went into the living room. Max and Cordelia were on the couch. The tears had subsided, but both were still hiccoughing and sighing. It seemed that Max had come to himself a bit in the few moments.

 

‘I’m Max McCoy,’ he said.

 

‘Shane Dunphy.’ I offered my hand but he made no move to take it.

 

‘I am not pleased with myself, Mr Dunphy. I know what I am, and what I am doing to my children.’

 

‘I’m not here to judge you, Mr McCoy. My role is to represent the children. You understand that I must remove them, for this evening at the very least.’

 

He nodded. Cordelia wrapped her arms around him even more tightly.

 

‘I’ll come out to see you tomorrow morning and we’ll discuss how to proceed from here. It strikes me that you may need some more therapy to help you deal with the addiction, but that isn’t my decision to make.’

 

‘Oh, it’s not, eh?’

 

‘No. I will have a social worker accompanying me to discuss those issues with you. As I said, my role is to be here for the children.’

 

‘We don’t need you!’ Cordelia spat at me then with such vehemence I almost stepped back. ‘We’re doing fine. Daddy just needs to get better, that’s all. I can help him. We can fix this together, as a family.’

 

Max smiled in a tired kind of way and stroked his daughter’s hair gently, hushing her as she disintegrated into tears again, less controlled this time.

 

‘There are things that are too big for anyone to do on their own, Cordelia,’ I said. ‘Your dad needs some help from people who are trained to give it to him. You’ve done your best, but you’re a child. You shouldn’t have to cope with all this on your own. You need someone to help you, to mind you. That’s what I’m here for, until your dad is in better shape.I know you love him, and I can see that he loves you, but, as you said, he’s not well right now.’

 

Max continued to hush the crying girl. Victor stood by the wall, apparently examining the pattern on the wallpaper, blocking out the horrors that were enfolding about him. Ibar was still nowhere to be seen. I doubted that he knew what was going on – but he knew something was up. Betty led Victor back into the hallway, suggesting that he gather some things for an overnight stay, and went to look for the younger boy. I wandered back out into the yard and watched the sun begin to sink below the hills across the road from the cottage.

 

We left them in the care of a woman named Dympna Dunleavey. She was not what I expected. I had foreseen a frumpy, spinsterish woman with blue-rinse hair. Dympna was probably thirty-two with short, dark brown hair and a pretty, friendly face. I felt at ease leaving the children with her; she seemed a warm, gentle person. Cordelia seemed, to my relief, to be fond of her, hugging her tightly as soon as we arrived. Ibar went to her for a brief cuddle and then disappeared into the house, first giving me a look that I could not read.

 

Dympna made us coffee and when the children had gone to their respective rooms she talked a little about Max, and how he was doing.

 

‘I’ve been waiting for this to happen,’ she said. ‘He’s been going down now for weeks. I don’t think he was ever sober at all, to tell the truth. He was seenin the pub a week after he came back from drying out.’

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