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Authors: Shane Dunphy

Wednesday's child (page 8)

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Melanie nodded and Mary left, muttering something about needing a well-earned cup of tea herself.

 

Half an hour later I put down the joy-pad.

 

‘Time for me to be making tracks.’

 

‘One more game?’

 

‘One more then. But after that I really have to go.’

 

‘Will you come back? Play me again?’

 

‘Aren’t you afraid of me beating you?’

 

‘No! Don’t be an eejit!’

 

I laughed.

 

‘Yeah, I’m sure I’ll be able to call in again.’

 

I made my way slowly down the stairs to the kitchen. Melanie, Mary and the two workers were at the table, drinking tea. The next shift had arrived and were chatting with the kids. Melanie fired up a smoke and passed the box over to me.

 

‘You did well with Josh,’ she said.

 

‘He’s all right. Doesn’t know whether he’s coming or going. Looks like you did okay yourself.’

 

‘I’ve been working with them for two weeks. Ishouldbe able to get around them at this stage.’

 

‘I hate this job,’ the younger worker moaned.

 

‘Shut up, Biddy,’ Melanie said.

 

‘Can I talk to you for a moment,’ I asked Melanie, ‘in private?’

 

She nodded and led me out into the hallway.

 

‘Listen, about back at the office …’ I began.

 

‘You shut up too. Here’s where we stand: I’ll be moving into one of the new buildings in two weeks. Until then, I will personally organise a desk for you in one of the other rooms. In a fortnight, I’ll move all mynewfiles out to the new place, and the work space is yours. Deal?’

 

I grinned.

 

‘Deal.’

 

‘Good. All it took was a fucking riot for us to learn to like each other.’

 

‘Who said I like you?’

 

‘Fuck off, Shane.’

 

‘Charming. Last time I come out to save your arse.’

 

‘Leave my arse out of it.’

 

And so my first week as a community childcare worker came to a close.

 PART TWO 

The Lost Fortnight

 

Where did you stay, my pretty little Miss?

 

Tell me, where did you sleep last night?

 

I’ve been in the Pen with those rough and rowdy men,

 

And now, I’m goin’ back again.

 

‘Hop High, My Loulou Girl’,

 

Appalachian Mountain Song

 6 

Childcare is not like other work. Productivity cannot really be measured by normal means: there is, in fact, no tangible product at all. How do you chart the development of a personality or the gradual changing of an old mode of thinking? Is it possible to map out the altering of a way of life?

 

In the following months I slipped into the routines and practices of the work as if I had never been away from them. Childcare, particularly when it is community-based, has a rhythm. It is like a dance, or playing a piece of music. You become accustomed to the particular beat and fall in with it, because to work against it would be impractical and cause untold problems.

 

I also began to relish the small, almost imperceptible, signs of progress in the children I worked with. A smile; a less than violent response to a difficulty that would have previously provoked a bout of aggression; a passing comment that reflects previously unseen self-awareness: these were all reasons for celebration.

 

It was a satisfying time, and although I often worked alone, I enjoyed the camaraderie and professional companionship of the team during the timesI was back at the office or accompanying someone on a visit. I had struck up easy friendships with Andi, Betty and Marjorie almost immediately, but in the following weeks I also found a bond with Josephine. She had a steely intelligence and a genuine wish to improve the lot of the many children whose lives were in her hands. Her management style was very much collaborative, and despite the difference in rank, I never felt that she was looking down on me. I was given free rein on my cases, which suited me perfectly. She was always available to offer advice or support, regardless of the hour it was asked for, and I found that this offered me a safe and comfortable platform from which to work.

 

I had established a pattern for working with Connie. She needed a set routine, and I organised my diary around seeing her twice weekly. I decided that the school would not be a suitable place for these meetings. If I did my job correctly, Connie would be opening up to me, and when that happens it is impossible to know what may emerge. I didn’t want her becoming upset at school, which she seemed to see as a safe haven, and where she might be seen by peers or teachers. I booked a room at the local health centre, and began to brush up on my Irish vocabulary and grammar. I did not really intend to spend much time on homework or study, but I needed to be able to at least follow what she was doing.

 

Connie remained extremely polite and goodnatured,but closed off to me. The first four sessions, despite my best efforts, were stolidly academic. I found it very frustrating but realised that this young lady was experienced in evasion, and decided to just let our relationship develop at its own pace.

 

One evening, I arrived at the centre to find her already in the room, but without her books out as was her custom. She was sitting on the table at which we usually worked, her coat still on and her arms wrapped around her knees. I stood in the doorway, wondering what had prompted this change in behaviour.

 

‘What’s up?’ I asked.

 

‘Nothing. I don’t feel like work today. You can go on.’

 

‘Well,’ I said, determined not to let an opportunity pass, ‘why don’t we do something else then? Do you want to go and get a cup of coffee, or go for a walk?’

 

‘No thanks.’

 

‘There must be something you’d like to do. Go and see a movie? Have a game of pool? Get a burger —’

 

‘Could we go to McDonald’s?’

 

This was uttered in a rush, like a small child who has suddenly been offered the chance to pick any sweet in the confectioner’s shop.

 

‘No problem. McDonald’s it is.’

 

I’m not a huge fan of fast food, but you would be amazed by the amount of children I’ve worked with who have a deep fondness for McDonald’s. I’ve come to believe that it’s a symbolic attachment: the GoldenArches seem to represent all the material things they should have received, but didn’t.

 

Twenty minutes later we were there, with the familiar smells and design motifs and uniforms. I tried not to watch Connie too closely, but she was letting her guard slip and it was hard not to steal occasional glances at her. She was behaving as if it was Christmas morning and was giddy with excitement.

 

‘What do you fancy?’ I asked.

 

‘I don’t know. It all looks so good.’

 

‘Absolutely. Well, people say that the burgers are pretty fine. Everyone talks about the burgers at McDonald’s.’

 

‘I know! But … the nuggets. When I was little my friends would always talk about the chicken nuggets …’

 

‘Mmm. Well, why don’t you have a burgerandsome nuggets?’

 

She looked at me with such unrestrained joy that I couldn’t help grinning myself.

 

‘Could I? Really?’

 

‘Sure. No point in having one and then wondering what the other is like. I have a friend who can never decide on a dessert when we go out to eat, so one day she just asked for a little bit of all the deserts on the menu. Solved her problem right off.’

 

‘They gave them to her?’

 

‘She got a funny look from the waiter, but they gave them to her, yeah.’

 

‘If I ever go out to a fancy restaurant, that’s what I’ll do,’ she said with deep seriousness.

 

‘So, a burger, chicken nuggets and some fries. Would you like a Coke?’

 

She didn’t answer. Her gaze was fixed on a father and child at a table near us. The child was opening a brightly coloured box and taking out a small toy wrapped in clear plastic. Connie’s mouth was hanging open, and without realising she was doing it, her hand reached over and tugged my sleeve.

 

‘Shane,’ she said.

 

‘Yes, Connie.’

 

‘Could I have a Happy Meal?’

 

I could have slapped my forehead at my own stupidity. Of course she wanted a Happy Meal. It was obvious from the start that Connie was playing out a deep-rooted childhood wish. Visits to McDonald’s were either so rare as to be huge treats in the Kelly household, or had been totally non-existent. As a child growing up in a house where the television was constantly on, Connie had been barraged by regular McDonald’s advertising. She had seen her friends bringing back Happy Meal boxes and toys, heard about birthday parties held at the local McDonald’s – had lived in a world where this place held such glamour and excitement that it became to her a kind of wonderland. She now wanted to experience all the things she had craved as a five-year-old. Only a Happy Meal would suffice.

 

‘Of course you can have a Happy Meal, Connie. You go on and sit down. I’ll bring it down to you.’

 

I ordered a chicken nugget Happy Meal and an extra burger with cola and a cup of coffee and a burger for myself. Connie took the box and carefully opened it, removing the toy and placing it solemnly on the table before her. I watched her. It was, for a few moments, as if I wasn’t there. She laid all the food out and studied it. She then sampled each item, taking small, dignified bites and a sip of her soft drink.

 

‘Good?’ I asked.

 

Beyond words, she nodded.

 

I ate my burger and drank my coffee and waited for her to emerge from her reveries. When the food was gone, she took the paper that had held the burger and placed it in the waste-bin, but she took the toy, still in its wrapper and put it back into the cardboard box of the Happy Meal and closed the lid. She was not throwing that away.

 

‘Thanks, Shane, for bringing me here,’ she said at last.

 

‘No problem. Any time you want to, we can come. Just let me know.’

 

‘You mean it?’

 

‘I do. It’s probably not good to eat here every week, because the food is fried and the drinks are full of sugar, but once every couple of weeks is fine, I suppose. If you want to come more often than that, we could just have juice or coffee. They do salads, but you probably aren’t a big fan of them.’

 

She shrugged.

 

‘How come you didn’t want to work today? It’s not like you.’

 

‘I just wasn’t in the mood for it.’

 

‘Why? Did something happen at school?’

 

‘No. School’s fine.’

 

‘At home then.’

 

There was no response, which was answer enough. She was sitting with her arms folded on the tabletop, her chin resting on them. She seemed suddenly lethargic, as if her excitement had worn her out.

 

‘What happened at home, Connie? Is your mum upset again?’

 

She shook her head and buried her face in her arms, hiding her eyes.

 

‘I guess you aren’t ready to talk to me about that yet. And it’s okay. When you’re ready, I’ll be around.’

 

She peeped over the top of her sleeve at me.

 

‘There’s nothing to talk about. You know what my family is like. Sometimes it just gets hard, that’s all.’

 

‘I can imagine. It must be very difficult.’

 

‘Usually I can handle it. Last night it just got a bit much for me. Mam and Dad were shouting, and Mick started up then. He howls in the night sometimes, like a wolf. Long, long howls. Even though I know it’s him, sometimes when he does it late at night it wakes me up and I get afraid. He just seems to be so … mad. Crazy, y’know?’

 

‘I know. It must be scary.’

 

‘And then I can’t get back to sleep, and I lie there and I wonder if maybe I’ll go mad living with them all. I’ve heard of people who go into nut-houses and they might be only a bit mad going in, but they end up totally crazy after a while in there. What if I end up like that? I’m okay now, but will I go mad eventually?’

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