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Shifting Sands

These Sunday shifts are killing me. Mary slid from their bed, the taste of Dave still salty in her mouth. March wind lion-clawed the window, branches scrabbing at the double glazing. One leg inside a clean knickers, she teetered in the semi-darkness, thudding against the wardrobe. So much for trying not to wake him. Blue uniform turning her into Care Assistant, she tiptoed across the landing. A skill perfected when the kids were younger. An earthquake splitting the house in two, wouldn’t wake the cantankerous teenagers they’d turned into.

In the car, the six am news said the winds would abate in the afternoon. ‘Damn it, forgot to take the meat out of the freezer.’ She pulled into a lay-by overlooking her destination. Rows of daffodils bobbed, raw gusts buffeting them. Her second date with Dave rolled her back twenty years. He’d brought a bunch of daffs. ‘A few missing from that row over there,’ he’d joked nodding at his offering. Always making her laugh.

The town below was framed in twinkling lights succumbing to morning. She messaged Dave, ending with ‘shep pie wud be luvely’ and a heart emoji. The only person she ever texted. Never sure of the exact spelling of words. The ridicule rooted in Primary school always ready to pounce. Her mind trawled back to confiding her shame to Dave. ‘Jesus I’m going to be late,’ she said out loud, putting the car into gear.

Yew trees stretched their frumpy arms skywards, as she drove up the avenue to the nursing home. Graveyard trees. Sentries watching ambulances drive up or hearses drive down, intermittently passing each other. She never liked how these boring stalwarts didn't change into the fresh leaves of spring, or take on the multi colours of autumn. The grey building loomed starkly, in collusion with the monotony of its dark green guardians.

A rush of warm air whisked her in the main door. Lights glared. Whirring activity ramping up. Clatter of cutlery twanged from the kitchen. Sausage and scrambled egg smells battled with popping toast. Trolleys rattled.

The cogs of a new day tried to turn the wheels of weary night staff waiting to clock off. Nurses ready to hand over. She watched them, envious of the job she would have loved. Never making it to Leaving Cert had proved an insurmountable obstacle. Clipping on her name badge, she got ready for St Anthony’s unit. Four old ladies would be rousing into the morning routine. Whether they wanted to wake or not. Rheumy eyes taking in the room, longing for their familiar bedroom at home. Nightdresses, nappies if worn, would have been changed. Mary was on feeding duty this morning. Propped up by pillows, the quartet, baby- bird like, waited for mother to arrive with food.

Breda joined her. ‘You off tomorrow,’ she asked as they fitted plastic aprons and gloves.

‘Sure am,’ Mary said, ‘need a good lie in.’

‘Mr O ‘Neill is finished his respite, going home today,’ Breda added, ‘Mrs O’ Connor is coming instead.’

‘Ah, he was lovely. Which Mrs O ‘Connor is she?’

‘New I think,’ Breda whispered, ‘I heard one of the nurses say she was a bit cranky. According to her daughter anyway.’

They followed the breakfast trolley rumbling to St Anthony’s. His statue watched from an alcove, the chip on its toe worsening. A mournful Virgin Mary stared from the wall.

‘I suppose we’d all be cranky if we were stuck in here,’ Mary sighed.

‘The daughter is going to Spain for two weeks,’ Breda said, ‘where I need to be, sprawled out in the sun.’

‘Morning my darlings,’ Mary chirped, ‘ready for a nice brekkie.’ Spooning egg or porridge into their open mouths used to upset her in the beginning. Is this how it ends? Full circle, back to babyhood. She’d recall her two children, sitting in high chairs, mouths smeared with mashed up banana. But they were going to grow up and be independent. ‘Maybe I was wrong about that,’ she thought, remembering her daughter Amy’s latest teenage tantrum.

‘Take Betty down to the chapel for Mass, when you finish there,’ Joan, the nurse on duty instructed.

Mary checked the clock, nine ten. The chapel was two corridors away. Just about make it for ten am. Betty would go through her wardrobe, same as every Sunday, lovingly handling each item, before always choosing the blue frock and white slippers. ‘Never know who you might meet,’ she’d say.

Gripping her stick in one hand, linking Mary with the other, they set off. Betty loved to take a peek inside the rooms on the left and right as they slowly progressed. Turning right at reception. Nearly there.

A woman with an older person in a wheelchair was checking in.

‘Take me home this minute.’ Something in that voice zip-lined through Mary. Manoeuvring Betty towards the chapel entrance, she stole a glance over her left shoulder, towards reception. Oh my God, it’s ‘that’ Mrs O’Connor.

‘I’ll be back at the end of Mass.’ She escorted her charge to the front seat. ‘Say a prayer for me,’ she said, patting Betty’s paper thin hand. Mary scurried past reception.

‘Could you get Mr O’ Neill’s stuff organised?’ Joan instructed, shuffling a heap of papers. ‘His family will be here any minute.’

‘Of course,’ Mary said.

‘Then you can help get Mrs O’ Connor settled,’ she added. Globules of sweat pooled into each other on Mary’s forehead.

‘Suppose I could let on I’m sick,’ she thought, ‘but she’ll be here for a fortnight.’

Jim O’Neill was packing his case. Handed Mary a box of Milk Tray. ‘Thanks for looking after me,’ he said, eyes smiling. Hope I don’t see you for a long time again though,’ he joked.

She escorted him to his family.

‘Hurry up Mary,’ Joan whispered in her ear, ‘Nancy O’ Connor had a bit of a mishap. She’s just stressed.


Mary’s head drifted back to third class. ‘My brother says the teacher’s name is Nancy,’ Johnny whispered one day, his news wild-firing through the classroom.

‘Miss, Miss,’ the good children would shout, fingers shaking, arms waving, clamouring for attention. ‘Nancy, Nancy,’ some smarty pants would goad behind their backs.

Fancy Nancy wet her panties. Mary had invented the mocking rhyme after that. Sometimes she’s whisper it to herself, pretending to mouth her spellings, when Mrs O’ Connor made her stand alone at the back of the room.


Breda arrived to help Mary get Nancy into fresh clothes.

‘I couldn’t find the stupid toilet,’ she complained, attempting to pull herself onto the bed. ‘And take that wheelchair away. I don’t need it.’

‘We’ll have you right as rain in a few minutes,’ Breda said gently, taking clean underwear out of Nancy’s bag. ‘Let’s get you changed.’

‘I can change myself,’ she protested, ‘I’ve never been so humiliated in all my life.’

‘Of course you can love,’ Breda said, exchanging glances with Mary, chattering on, distracting Nancy, as they expertly completed the task. Mary couldn’t look at the old lady. You never worried about humiliating me.

Nancy relaxed into the armchair beside the bed when they were finished.

‘Breda, are you done there?’ Joan leaned in the door. ‘I need you in room five.’

‘Could this young lady get me the paper?’ Nancy demanded. ‘Read me a few lines.’

‘She will of course,’ Joan smiled.

Mary headed to the day room. Newspapers were spread out on a table. She scanned the headlines for something familiar enough for her to wing it. Sky news was on in the background. One or two patients arrived, beginning a circle that would expand as the morning progressed. A reporter was announcing that a Boeing 737 had crashed in Ethiopia.

Mary picked up ‘The Sunday Independent.’ Probably be her type of paper.

‘What kept you?’ Nancy asked, chin up, eyes peering over glasses at Mary. ‘I’m tired of waiting. ‘Do you know I’m eighty seven years of age? Read me the headlines, that’ll do until I rest my eyes.’


A shifting in time, again dragged Mary back to third class. Floundering at reading and spelling. Dyslexia, she found out years later. I wasn’t stupid, just saw words in a different way.

She recalled Mrs O’Connor up at the top of the class. Her mouth moving. A wicked witch stirring words in a cauldron of confusion. The Friday horror show ready to roll. She remembered the ferocity of forcing her ears to magnify their power. As if listening would work this week. The alphabet would jumble up her throat, regurgitating a version of the spellings she’d tried so hard to learn. The letters arranged themselves as they saw fit…. ‘shud, brght.

‘Stand down at the back Miss Meehan,’ the towering figure would command.’ Take out your spelling book and go over your words. The ones you should have learned last-night.’ Turning to the class, she’d go on and on about the importance of learning. ‘You have to be able to spell, to get on in this world.’ She’d dole out lollipops to the best spellers.

The torture endured throughout third class, deepening a wound that was difficult to heal. The remedial work of teachers who followed helped, but they couldn’t undo the damage. Everyone in the school thought I was a dumb thicko.


‘Come on girl, are you asleep or what?’ Mrs O’Connor’s peevish voice jolted her back into the present.

Mary sidled the paper onto the locker. ‘Plane crash in Ethiopia,’ she began,’ one hundred and thirty seven people dead including…’

‘Oh God protect us all,’ Nancy interrupted, blessing herself, rummaging for a black rosary beads. She twisted it round her left hand, lifting the crucifix to her lips.

‘There was an Irishman on board,’ Mary resumed, ‘Mick ….’

‘Lord have mercy on him,’ Nancy butted in. ‘People should stay at home in their own country, not be bringing misery on their families. I need to lie down now. Can you help me please?’

Mary pulled back the bedclothes. Nancy hauled her upper body onto the bed. Mary lifted the legs, positioning them under the covers. As she tucked her in and pulled up the side bars, Nancy screwed up her eyes, scrutinising Mary’s face. ‘Did I ever teach you? She queried, her gaze moving to Mary’s name tag…’.Mary Mulligan, Mulligan, don’t remember any Mulligans. She examined Mary’s ring finger. She never wore rings to work.

‘No you didn’t teach me,’ Mary lied. Well just how to make myself feel small.

The rest of the day passed in a swirl of duty. Mary anticipated tasks that needed doing anywhere away from Nancy. End of shift lumbered round eventually.

Home beckoned. Never know what’ll greet you there either.

Her car crunching onto the gravel driveway, she unleashed her tied up hair.

‘How was your day?’ Dave asked.

‘Busy,’ she sighed, flopping onto the sofa. Let it be for now. How’s everything?’

‘Ah grand. Here, have a glass of red.’

‘Where are they?’ The house seemed quiet. Voices echoing in her head.

‘Tom’s on the Xbox. Half-hour left. Catching her look, he added, ‘don’t be worrying, I’m on it.’

‘And Amy’s actually reading Wuthering Heights. Seemingly all her gang in school are in love with Heathcliff.’

‘What’s really up?’ Dave probed. She could sense his antennae picking up a deeper unrest in her. He reads me so easily.

‘Let’s talk later,’ she whispered, slurping her glass empty. ‘I don’t want the kids hearing any of this. ‘It’s just Mrs O’ Connor is in for respite.’ She could read his mind processing the significance of that name. He was scooping Shepherd’s Pie onto a plate for her.

‘You know I’m really proud of you.’ He placed a tray on her lap. Poured two glasses of wine. ‘The kids are too, despite the hormones. I can still see those daffodils the night you told me about her.’

Proud of me. She mulled over the simple words. Their power already re-shaping her outlook.

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