Sisters of Mercy, Galway
I tiptoe past the beds, groping my way through the dormitory. The gloom my shield. Latest victim, Pauline, lies curled up in a foetal position on a mere sheet, sniffling in her sleep. Something rankles. Poor sod must have wet the bed again. I throw the blanket over her then melt into the corridor. Silent as a wraith.
The Virgin Mary leaps out at me from her sanctimonious perch on the window sill, amid intangible threats that lurk elsewhere in the shadows. Shoes squeak from a room to the left. A pungent odour of antiseptic wafts through the air. Someone flicks on a light from behind. Sister Joseph pushing a trolley heaped with towels and sheets. She’ll recognise me. Gotta get out of the open.
Finding a door at my shoulder, I shove it aside. Stumble into a closet and wait for her to pass. Sister Joseph has the hearing of a flea, but she can smell fear a mile away. Sweat pools behind my neck and slithers down inside my clothes. I twist my hands, powerless to block the overwhelming panic about to drown me. The light goes out and murk descends in the hallway once again.
I’m so cold, goosebumps prickle my legs and arms, and I can see the vapours from my breath billow into the frigid air. I rub saliva from my mouth, straighten, and will myself to think through the fog that fugs my mind.
It will be morning soon and they will be searching for me. Hugging myself to keep warm, I glance down at my stained brown smock that is almost threadbare from constant use. At my knuckles, skinned from scrubbing concrete floors. Flinching at every rattle and floorboard creak, I squeeze the Claddagh ring suspended from a chain around my neck, close my eyes and recite a prayer in my mind my grandmother taught me when I was little, to give me courage.
Angel of God
My Guardian dear
To whom God’s love
Commits me here
Ever this day
Be at my side
To light and guard
To rule and guide
My breathing slows, and I scrutinise the little room with new eyes. A black habit dangles from a hook to the right and below that a tunic, wimple and gleaming black shoes. My hands are shaking so much, I struggle with the baggy habit and stuff my hair into the wimple. It’s just the right fit, tight against my skull.
In my haste to escape, I knock a small bag of linen to the ground. I pick it up to cover me in case anyone questions what I’m doing. Heart pounding, shoulders back and striding with a confidence I don’t feel, I emerge from my place of hiding, praying that no one will see me.
A weak shaft of light filters through the grimy windows overhead, revealing a grey dismal sky beyond, a promise of the day to come.
The habit is so long I step on the hem, stumble and drop the bag. A voice stops me cold.
‘Sister, goodness, where are you going at this hour?’
My gut clenches, screaming to flee and it takes every last ounce of willpower not to lunge for the stairs just four feet away. Rigid with fear I turn. Hands twisted in a ball at my side.
Sister Concepta’s glasses rest askew halfway down her bulbous nose. Chocolate coats her face and biscuit crumbs muddy her tunic. She glances up as I turn around and squints. My mouth goes dry.
‘Bit early for deliveries, isn’t it, Sister Margaret?’ she clucks. ‘What’s the world coming to – delivery vans at half seven in the morning. Lord save us and guard us.’
I’m so relieved that she doesn’t recognize me, air whooshes out of my body with enough force to cause a tornado. I shrug in reply, hoping to God she’ll leave it at that, but needn’t have worried as she’s off grumbling to herself down the corridor. Rosary beads swinging. Still shaking her head in bafflement.
Clutching the bag full of washing, I rush downstairs to the basement. One ear cocked for activity upstairs. Out of breath, I toss the bag on the ground, and spring to the door. Cobwebs cling for dear life to crevices overhead. A pump hums in the corner. Empty boxes tossed upended in a pile. Clanking pipes.
The bolt jams at first, I yank it back, my hands slippery with sweat and it opens. Cold air hits my face like a bucket of iced water. Nothing ever felt so good. As soon as I am free of the confines of the institute, I bolt up the street and lose myself in the maze of the town.
A Volkswagen Beetle ploughs through a puddle drenching me. I gasp and jump back on to the pavement for safety, just as a green bus advertising Kellogg’s Cornflakes on the side, and belching smoke out its rear end, trundles to a stop not far from where I wait. The bus is my knight in shining armour. Arriving to my rescue on the nick of time. I scan the destination overhead. Salthill.
The driver, round and bearded with black hair, steps out for a smoke. I hop on when he’s not looking, huddle at the back, and pray that my good fortune will hold out until I get to my destination. Babbling girls in school uniform get on the bus. Forming a wall in front of me. Concealing my presence.
A weary sun dapples anaemic hedges scattered throughout the estates as the bus meanders along cobbled streets and squares, stopping now and then to let more passengers on. Heat sears my face; finding it hard to breathe I tug at the wimple.
At the next stop, the girls disembark and a small slight middle-aged woman carrying a loud orange handbag, and a folded newspaper tucked under her left arm, boards the bus. She sits down opposite me, scans the headlines, then puts the paper down, and stares out the window. At the third stop, she gets out. The newspaper still on the seat.
I pick up the Sun Herald and skim the first page. My eyes are drawn to a paragraph on the left column. Report exposes overcrowding and neglect at The Sisters of Mercy care home.
I chuck the newspaper aside. The town slowly chugs to life. Up ahead the steeple from St. Mary’s Church pokes into the sky, like a beacon towering above the houses directing me where to go.
I don’t have the luxury of resting. My heart is racing. At the last stop, I jump out. Pull down the wimple, and gasp at my reflection in the glass as the bus sputters away; my colourless cheeks and matted brown hair shorn to almost within an inch of my skull.
I blink in disorientation at the buildings, the warren of streets around me. Everything looks so different. Nothing is where it’s supposed to be. My mind is smudged by hazy memories. I don’t know whether to go right or left. But I have to keep moving. So, I head west towards Salthill. Head bent against the biting wind.
It doesn’t take long before I discover that I’m lost. My feet ache from walking, the shoes are pinching my toes. People are glancing curiously at me as I pass. Pointing and whispering. My head can’t take it anymore. I have to find Gran soon. If only I could remember. I press my knuckles to my head as if that will somehow release the memories trapped inside.
The sun disappears behind a cloud. A gull swoops to the ground. Church bells chime out the midday hour. It’s been almost twelve months since I’ve seen or heard from my grandmother. What if she has died? Gripped with sudden panic, I stop and clutch a railing for support. I find it hard to breathe. A cyclist goes by in slow motion. I can’t hear the chuckles from the young couple pushing twins. Banging, clattering and hammering from a nearby building site has stunted my hearing. Weak from hunger and lack of sleep, I try to focus as everything whirls around me.
A garda car pulls to the curb. I register the arrival too late; a guard jumps out; bull- necked, and cross-eyed. Marches towards me.
‘Louisa Sheridan, stay right where you are.’
I spin on my heel, but the long habit hampers my escape, and I collide against two elderly ladies in headscarves carrying shopping.