by Paddy Reid
In all his eleven years, Liam Bollard had never been away from Dublin. He really missed the sounds of Portside Street. The cries of mothers calling while children ran the other way. The loud, cheerful voices of men leaving the Black Diamond pub at closing time. He even missed chasing after lorries to steal lumps of coal. Here it was so different. The sanatorium was too quiet. The other boys were mostly silent. “Yes Nurse,” “No Nurse,” were about all they said.
At night, the distant clatter of trains made him homesick even as it broke the silence. There were few other sounds. The squeak of a nurse’s shoe, the banging of a door that didn’t shut properly. The harsh coughs that sometimes jerked him awake.
Liam gazed into the bathroom mirror and didn’t like what he saw: a skinny white face and close-shaven head. He ran a hand through black bristly hair and thought Ma wouldn’t know him now. He returned to the ward and climbed into bed. As he slipped into sleep, he recalled the last time he saw her.
“I have to go now, Liam.” She ruffled his hair and kissed his forehead. “Don’t cry. Will you do that for me, love?”
Liam held her coat sleeve.
“When can I go home, Ma?”
He saw the pain that filled her eyes. She looked close to tears.
“I don’t know love. Only God knows.” She managed a smile. “Don’t forget to pray every night, like I told ya.”
She began twisting the end of her headscarf.
“I’ll see ya next Sunday.”
She kissed him again and moved toward the exit door.
Liam ran to the east window and pressed his face to the cool glass as she passed by. Ma glanced up, waved, shook her head, and moved quickly along the gravel path. She was almost running now, her head lowered. That’s when he saw the Alsatian dog, loping alongside her. Ma didn’t seem to notice, even when the dog howled at her.
Liam’s bed was at the end of the ward. Other than a crucifix over the door, the room looked bare. Nothing but row after row of grey covered beds. A pot-bellied stove stood in the middle of the ward, but it still felt cold.
Even after three weeks, it felt strange to wake up in such a place. The moments between dreams and awakening, were the worst. Sometimes he snapped awake to the sound of Ma calling him, but she was never there. Once he awoke to find the head nurse, Sister Immaculatus, standing over him, her face a shiny skull in a black cowl.
“Are we sleeping, little man?”
She spoke slowly, her words falling on him like sharp frost.
Liam quickly turned to face the wall. Ma always told him to think of something nice whenever he felt sad. As he slipped into sleep, he brought an image to mind. Both of them walking along Dollymount Strand on a hot August day.
He was five then, half a lifetime ago. Ma was laughing aloud, swirling around in circles in the sea-washed sand, one hand gripping her shoes, the other holding up her long white skirt. She began splashing water in all directions as she moved closer to the sea. Liam stood in the white, dry sand, warily eyeing the blue-green waves that hissed and foamed around her ankles. It was his first ever visit to the seaside. He took one step toward her.
“C’mon Liam. It’s massive.” She laughed like a child. “Last in is a cowardy-custer and gets no ice cream.”
She beckoned him in, black shoes waving above her head. He ran towards her. Soon they ran along the strand, side by side, kicking up sprays of salty water. Their feet splattered noisily as they headed for the wooden pier.
“Whee! It’s only gorgeous, Liam.” She tossed her shoes into a sand dune. “C’mon, let’s play.”
They began kicking water at each other. Liam laughed so much that tears mixed with salty spray. He had never seen her so happy. Finally, they rested in the sand dune, while Ma dried him down with a towel. In the distance, he saw the silver bicycle cart of the ice cream man, a shimmering blur in the setting sun. Ice cream would taste so good.
Sunday came and Ma didn’t visit. Liam saw nurses gathered in groups, whispering and glancing over at him. Even Sister Immaculatus smiled at him. Were they sending him home?
That’s why Ma didn’t come. He must be going home. The thought cheered him greatly.
When he went to the toilet after lunch, he saw a newspaper scattered on the ground. He glanced at the date. Sunday…June the first…1941. A familiar scene caught his attention. He knelt down and read the page, slowly mouthing the words.
“North Strand. German bombers. Thirty-eight dead. Many missing.”
Liam looked at the photo, his heart racing now. It was his end of Portside Street, or what little remained of it. Mostly heaped rubble with jagged beams thrusting out like long bayonets.
He ran from the toilet. Two nurses chased him, caught him as he rushed to the front door. One held him tight as he wept. Everything went blurry after that. When he awoke, he felt as if he’d been sleeping forever, a deep silent sleep with no dreams.
“Are we feeling better now?”
Sister Immaculata managed a brief smile as she stood over him.
“The dog’s barking outside again,” Liam said absently.
“Silly boy,” she said with a lipless grin. “There’s no dogs around here.”
The boy in the next bed came from Cork. Shaunie was friendly, and they talked about football and such things. Shaunie’s parents even brought presents for Liam the following Sunday. That same evening, both boys stood by the front window, watching as Shaunie’s parents left to catch the train to Cork. Liam stared at the railway tracks in the distance.
“Which way is Dublin?” he asked.
“That way.” Shaunie pointed left. “Cork is down there.”
Liam peered into the distance to the right but saw nothing, only fields and hedges.
“Where are we?” Liam asked.
“Oh,” Shaunie laughed. “We’re right in the middle of nowhere.”
Liam frowned. It wasn’t right. There should be streets with girls skipping and singing, and boys playing football, dogs barking, and trams rattling by.
“How far is Dublin?” he asked finally.
“Dunno. Far I’d say.” Shaunie shrugged. “As far away as Cork is.”
Something in his voice made Liam look up. Tears welled in Shaunie’s eyes.
“You want go home, Shaunie?”
Shaunie returned to bed and climbed under the blankets. It was the same every Sunday when the visitors left; all the boys were sad and tearful. Liam sat in bed and watched some go stand by the east window until Sister Immaculata ordered them back to bed. The ward was always so much quieter on such nights. Some kids cried softly, while others lay staring up at the ceiling. Shaunie buried himself under the bedclothes. Liam listened to low moans that finally settled into stillness.
“When can I go home?”
Liam began asking every nurse the same question. They just smiled.
“Ask the doctor,” one finally said.
The doctor patted him on the head and said not yet, son. Finally, he stopped asking.
“Shaunie?” Liam called one night.
“Ye-eh?” A yawning answer.
“Will ya be a farmer like your Daddy when you go home?”
“No-o.” Shaunie paused. “Too bloody hard.”
“What are ya gonna to do when ya leave here?”
“Leave?” Shaunie echoed. “I’ll be with me Granda and Grandma”
“Oh. Where do they live?”
“With Jesus?” Liam was confused. “Why?”
Shaunie rolled his eyes.
“It’s where we go after here. Didn’t ye know that?”
Liam lay back, tucking the blanket under his chin.
“Can we not go somewhere else?”
“Such as?” Shaunie asked.
“No.” Shaunie sighed. “It’s not up to us.”
Nothing was said for a while.
“Is TB bad, Shaunie?”
Liam waited but got no answer. Shaunie lay sleeping, his mouth partly open forming a small “O.”
Granny Bollard came to visit him. He was glad to see her, even if all she did was bury her face in her blue veined hands and cry. Her tears only made him feel worse, as if he was somehow responsible for her sorrow. That night he coughed so much that he thought his chest would explode from the effort.
He must’ve fallen asleep, for he awoke into silence and darkness. Somewhere in the distance he heard a train whistle. Was it going to Dublin or Cork? A dog barked. Rising silently from bed, Liam went to the east window. He watched the yellow lights slowly drifting left. That’s when he saw the Alsatian gliding easily over the moonlit field. The dog came toward Liam and stopped outside the window, pink tongue hanging, sitting and waiting. Then it stood up and wagged its tail rapidly.
“C’mon,” it called to him.
Liam nodded and quickly moved back to his bed. Opening his bedside locker, he pulled out a woolly jersey.
“Liam?” Shaunie whispered. “Where are ye?”
“Quiet!” Liam hissed, kneeling at Shaunie’s bed. “D’ya want to come with me?”
“Where?” Shaunie quickly.
“Home.” Liam whispered fiercely.
“I can’t Liam.” Shaunie’s voice was shaky. “I have to stay.”
“For…Jesus and Grandad.”
“Okay,” Liam cut in. “I’ll see ya.”
He moved toward the side door.
“Liam?” Shaunie called.
Liam returned quickly to Shaunie’s side.
“Take this. For if you’re hungry.”
He handed Liam a small blood orange.
Liam slipped out the side door as he’d seen the nurses do at night. He’d heard them complain that the door didn’t shut properly. Outside the dog came over and licked his hand once then walked alongside him. He moved quickly down toward the tracks and found an old boreen road running alongside the railway line. He leaned against a telephone pole and peeled the blood orange. Sweat dripped from his body and began to cool on his skin, and the fruit was so dry. He called to the dog.
“D’you know where we live?” Liam asked.
The dog barked once.
“Please,” Liam urged, “take me home.”
The dog whirled around and galloped silently along the path.
“Run,” it barked. “Run.”
Liam nodded eagerly and began running. As he ran, he started laughing, just like he did when being chased by the fat lorry driver crying blue murder over his missing lumps of coal. It felt great to run in the dark. Whenever he slowed down, the dog turned to him, tail wagging. “Run, Run.”
Liam ran, moving even faster than before. The dark-faced coalman would never catch him now. As the sky turned from black to grey, Liam realised he’d never run as long, as fast or as easily in his life.
“I’m going home,” He told himself.
At this rate, he’d be all the way home to Portside before he knew it.
Paddy Reid writes about “fractured” lives in his inner city/docklands neighborhood. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.