The Queen of Sybil Hill

“Jesus, it’s huge!”

I squinted upwards through the rainspattered windscreen.

“It’s five stories, for God’s sake, how would they get them all out in a fire?”

Kathleen, my grandmother, had accepted the hospitality of the Little Sisters of the Poor more than five years previously, but this was my first visit. I had pictured a whitewashed cottage overlooking the sea, with Granny wrapped up inside in a knitted shawl, rocking by a turf fire. The Little Sisters (just two of them, in my imagination) would be elbowing each other out of the way -‘No, Frances Xavier, let me do it, she prefers me to cut her toenails.” “Come now, Concepta Immaculata, fair’s fair, you had the massaging of her bunions all of last week”.

 

There could be no question; when it came to mortification of the spirit, half an hour at Kathleen’s beck and call was worth a month at anyone else’s. My father had emigrated to London in the fifties, as had two of his brothers and their only sister Carmel had settled in Crawley, so once a year throughout my childhood, Kathleen, the Queen of the Behans, would descend among us as part of her Royal Progress, with my grand-daddy Steven in the early days and then, after his death, on her own. Steven used to sit me on his knee and call me his “Little Cleopatra” (something to do with my haircut). He was warm and jolly and always good for the price of a packet of sweets. Kathleen wasn’t really interested in us children; you could be forgiven for thinking she wasn’t really interested in anyone but Kathleen. She would seat herself in the best available chair and hold forth with the grown-ups, issuing her royal commands to any child unlucky enough to be caught in the peripheral vision of her one good eye; “Just a half a cup of tea, darling. While you’re on foot.” And when the tea arrived, “I’ll take a bit of bread and butter with that, darling”. And when you brought the bread, ”Sweetheart, that’s far too much, take half of that away, sure I wouldn’t eat that in a month.” Then, once the bread was back in the bread bin and the butter back in the fridge, “Darling, I’ll take just one more slice of bread.” and when you brought the slice, “Child of grace, is there no tea to go with it? Sure, a bird never flew on one wing.”

 

I rolled down the car window to check the name. Rain driven in off the Irish sea lashed at my face in damp gusts. My courage failed me. Maybe we’d got lost or written the address down wrong. I pulled my head back in and unfolded the piece of paper on which I’d written the address. No, this was it. I folded it back up.

“Maybe I wrote the address down wrong.” I said.

“Don’t try and wriggle out of it. We’re here now, we might as well go in.” Dermot never wriggled out of things; it was one of the things I loved about him.

 

He locked the car and followed me past a crucified Jesus staring mournfully upwards to the top of the building as if he shared my concerns about emergency evacuation in the event of a fire. We stepped into the glassily hygienic reception where a young nun sat behind a desk, perpetually supervised by the sorrowful downward glance of the Queen of Heaven as if she agreed with her son, that stacking the old and infirm vertically and in such numbers was a fundamentally flawed idea. I gave her granny’s name, assuming she’d have to consult some kind of chart to locate her. But she smiled and directed me to the lift.

“Third floor.”

“But I don’t know the name of the ward.”

She gave a wry smile.

“Oh, you’ll find her easy enough”

 

 

We entered the lift. Dermot pressed three.

“At least it doesn’t smell,” he hissed.

I shot him a look of disgust, though I had been thinking the same thing myself. In fact it did smell, quite strongly, of polish and penitential scrubbing. The lift doors opened and we turned left down a long corridor decorated with holy pictures, crosses, sacred hearts, Saint Anthony of Padua in a niche.

“God, this place is creepy, all this obsession with death and pain.”

“Spoken as a true lapsed Catholic.”

“I am not a lapsed Catholic.” I protested, “I never was a Catholic. My parents were in the Communist Party

“Well why does it bother you, then?”

“I don’t know, I feel… guilty. Like I’m going to get found out. Still, at least I’m not a prod, eh?” I pinched his bottom.

“Who are you calling a prod.”

“You, you big prod.”

“I’m not.”

“Yes you are, you were christened. Your mum showed me your dress.’

“Okay, I’m a lapsed prod. Doesn’t exactly make me Ian Paisley.”

“Yeah? You’re all the same, you prods.”

“In any case, say what you like about Ian Paisley, he’s a good constituency M.P.”

“Well, you can keep that sort of talk to yourself for starters.”

A nun appeared round the corner, drifting along the polished hall like a Dalek. She smiled benignly as she passed.

“Afternoon. Sister.” I mumbled.

“You genuflected!“

“Rubbish!”

“You did! You gave a little curtsey! Some atheist you turn out to be!”

 

The corridor turned sharp right and opened out into a communal area full of the usual high-back, wipe-down chairs, each one occupied by a grey-headed old lady. A fresh surge of panic gripped me – which one was she?

As I was scanning the faces uncertainly, Kathleen broke off the conversation she’d been having and levered herself out of her chair.

“Darling, how are you? And who’s this you have with you?”

“Hello Granny.” I kissed her Capstan-shrivelled cheek.

“Oh, Kathleen, you’ve a visitor, isn’t that lovely?” said a smiley old lady in the next chair.

I smiled expectantly back, but Kathleen grabbed my arm and swung me forcefully towards the corridor, .

“Let’s get out of here.” She said. “My room’s not far. Or will we go to the pub?”

Kathleen had been knocked off her feet by a motorbike some twenty years previously and her once powerful stride had been reduced to a shuffle. I made a swift mental calculation and decided it would be some time tomorrow before we reached the lift.

“I’d love to see your room.”

“And who, might I ask, is this handsome gentleman?”

“This is Dermot, my boyfriend.”

“Dermot, lend me your arm, darling.” She handed me her walking stick, “Here, you’ll carry that.” She searched my features for a moment. “You’ll have to remind me, which one are you?”

“I’m Janet? Brian’s daughter?”

“Of course you are. Dermot, we’ll rest here a minute. My dancing days are done.”

 

At lasts we reached her room, a two-bedded side ward. In one of the two beds lay a moribund old lady no longer capable of movement, let alone dancing. The curtain was pulled round her bed and she groaned softly in her sleep. Kathleen’s bed was next to the window, commanding a view of grey, windswept, North Dublin suburbs with Howth Head in the distance.

“You’ve got a great view.“ I said.

“For those with eyes to see it.” she replied with asperity. Then, smiling as she loosed hold of Dermot’s arm to settle herself on the bed, ” Ah, that’s grand, you’re a prince among men”

“Do they treat you well, Granny,” I asked, “are you happy here?”

“Darling why wouldn’t I be? The food is more than I can eat and I’ve mass piped up to me twice a day. I needn’t leave my bed if I don’t want. Will you take a drop of whisky, Dermot? I’ve a bottle about me somewhere.”

She rummaged in her hand-bag. Dermot had retreated to the wall, just a little too far from the bed to be considered sociable. His hands were rammed in his pockets and he was staring intently at the lino; if ever a man needed a drink, it was he. Before he could answer, the lady in the next bed let out a loud, distressed groan. I rose out of my seat in alarm.

“Should I call the nurse?”

“Not at all, not at all. Shut up, will you, you stupid object!” she shouted at the curtain.

“Never lets up, night, noon or morning. I’m driven mad with her noises. Now, where’s that bottle. Janet, take a look in the wardrobe for me, dear. It’s just a small bottle. How’s your poor mother?”

I opened the wardrobe. Five or six hangers bearing a couple of old lady dresses, cardigans, her coat. In the bottom, two pairs of shoes.

“Oh Mum’s fine. She sends her love,”I lied

“Take a good look around the room, I know it’s somewhere. I’m sure Dermot would take a drop.”

“I’m fine, really, don’t…”

“Janet, take a look under the bed.”

There was nothing under the bed, not even dust.

“I wonder has it slipped down here?”

Kathleen pulled feebly at her pillow, trying to inspect the space between the pillow and the wall. I cast about me in a meaningless way. There was no-where to conceal a whisky bottle in this clinical minimalism and surely the nuns would have whisked it away if they’d seen it. Piped mass or no piped mass, you wouldn’t want your old ladies racketing around the third floor half cut.

 

“What about the bottle in the car?” I whispered to Dermot.

Dermot had bought the bottle as a present for his father.

Dermot lifted his gaze from the lino.

“I’ll pop down and get it, shall I?”

“I wouldn’t like to put you to the trouble, I know it’s here somewhere, did we look under the bed? Bend down, Janet, and take a proper look.”

“It’s no trouble, I’ll go and get it, shall I?” said Dermot, half way to the door.

“Ah, you’re too good,” she said to his retreating back.

“Isn’t he lovely? Lovely manners. Now,” she said, grasping her handbag, “Lend me your arm, Janet. I’ll just pop to the toilet, while he’s gone, freshen myself up. “

She turned to me, smiling winsomely, ”Not that I suppose he cares!”

I waited by the washbasins while she took herself to the toilet, then watched while she neatened her sparse white curls. Photographs of her as a young woman show a magnificent head of chestnut hair, stretching right down her back. She’d never been beautiful, but the photographs show someone with a great sense of herself. The hair was nearly all gone, but the confidence remained. She’d lived through hardships that would have dented the spirits of another woman, but Kathleen remained buoyant. She straightened the neck of her blouse, a slight tremor in her fingers, and then checked her face in the mirror.

“Now,” she said, satisfied that all was in order. Kathleen was in her nineties, ninety-four or ninety-six, depending on which life insurance policy you believed, as wrinkled as a prune and with one glass eye. But she looked in the mirror and was satisfied with what she saw.

On the way back from the ladies, she said to me, “The doctors say I have cancer. Of the womb.”

Shameful though it is to admit it, the thought of her womb playing any kind of significant role in a woman in her nineties came as a bit of a shock to me.

“That’s terrible, I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Ach, it doesn’t trouble me much. And the rate it’s going the tumour will probably outlive me.”

“I don’t believe that,” I said and I didn’t. To my mind, she’d see us all out.

 

We reached the door of her room. A nun dressed as a nurse was waiting to ambush her.

“Mrs Behan, what’s all this about a scarf?”

“Sister. The scarf is gone. I’d only had it a week. I’ve told you time and again, you can’t turn your back for a minute in this place.”

“Are you sure you didn’t lose it when you were out? Where did you see it last?”

“In the wardrobe, of course, hanging up with my coat, sure where else would I see it? I don’t wear it in bed. She’s had it. That and more.”

“Who’s had it?”

“Sister I wouldn’t lower myself by naming names. I would not stoop to that.”

“Are you saying other things have gone missing? You’ve not reported anything else missing.”

“Sister, you’ve a thief in your employ. I’m tired saying it.   If you don’t want to listen, then don’t.”

“What’s gone missing?”

“The scarf, I’m after telling you that five minutes ago, have you a problem with your hearing, sister?”

“Apart from the scarf?”

Dermot appeared in the doorway and stopped, stuffing the bottle of Blackbush inside his jacket.

“Sister,” Kathleen said firmly, ”Don’t you see I’ve visitors?”

The nurse slammed the wardrobe shut.”

“Kathleen, these are serious allegations. I only hope they’re not mischiee-vious.”

The Little Sister pursed her lips and turned on her heel, her rubber soles farting softly as she walked. Her expression softened as she passed Dermot in the doorway.

“Don’t tire her out now. Good day to you Kathleen.”

“Good day, Sister. Wouldn’t that one have been great in the SS? Janet, would you not get a chair for Dermot, look, he’s nowhere to sit.”

There was only one chair and I was sitting in it.

“Look, behind the curtain.”

I eyed the curtain uncertainly.

“Isn’t that …her chair?”

“Fetch it, she’s no use for it.”

“What if she gets a visitor?”

“She hasn’t had a visitor in years.”

Gingerly, I pulled back the curtain. The woman behind it was curled up like a foetus, occupying no more space than a large toddler. Guiltily, I lifted the chair, mouthing ‘sorry’ and ‘excuse me ‘ to her motionless back.

“Now, isn’t that better.” said Kathleen, when we were all seated. “Janet, there’s glasses by the sink”.

There were two glasses by the sink. The only other glass was on her night-stand and it was in use.

“We need another glass, shall I…? “I rose to go in search of a kitchen.

“No, there’s this one, look.” Dermot and I stared at the nightstand, rabbits caught in the headlights’ glare. There was a pause while Kathleen focussed on the glass. Then, after the slightest intake of breath, she scooped her teeth out of the glass and into her mouth with one deft movement

“There, she said, thrusting the glass at me, “give that a rinse out.”

I rinsed the detritus from her teeth down the sink, scrubbed it with my finger and held it out to Dermot to fill.

“Brian writes to me every week. Always sends money. I’ve told him not to, sure he’s his own family to look out for.”

I’d never thought of my father as a dutiful son. And the idea that he’d send her money was, frankly, hard to believe. But I hadn’t seen much of him since the divorce.  Maybe he’d changed.

“He did wrong to leave your mother. I told him so at the time.”

“Ah well, these things happen.”

“Not in my day they didn’t. Your poor mother must have been devastated”

I didn’t know what to say. Incandescent with rage would have been closer to the mark.

“Yes, he’s very good, can’t do enough for me. But then, his brothers and sister are just the same. All begging me to come and live with them. But if I chose one, wouldn’t the others be offended?” she sighed, “I’d better stick where I am. And where’s Dermot from?”

Dermot cleared his throat.

“Belfast.”

Kathleen beamed.

“My first husband was from the North. Come closer, darling, You’re very soft spoken. Give me your arm a minute, darling; Now, Janet, get in behind me and plump these pillows.”

She gripped Dermot’s forearm with her spindly fingers and pulled herself forward while I plumped.

“Dermot,” she said, resting back but retaining a firm hold on my boyfriend. “Dermot. Answer me truthfully. Do you go to mass?”

Dermot said nothing. Dig yourself out of this one, I thought.

Relenting, I said, “Granny, he’s a Protestant.”

“Darling,” she admonished,”I know some lovely Protestants! We’ll not hold that against him!” she sipped her whisky. ”Did your father tell you I’m making a record?”
“No.”

“I’ve a contract to make an LP. A lovely Canadian boy, I call him my Musicy Man. He brings his tape recorder up with him. Why anyone would want to listen to the likes of me, I’m sure I don’t know.”

She was obviously digging for a compliment, so I obliged

“Oh, nonsense, you’re a great singer.”

Kathleen had been a fine singer in her day and had an encyclopaedic knowledge of every kind of song from folk to grand opera.

She began to sing.

“On the twenty first day of November,

Just south of the town of Macroom ..”

The volume was undiminished by the passing years, but the timbre was that of a cat being murdered.

She went on for a couple of verses. Dermot poured himself another whisky and stared into it.

“Sure why he wants my old voice on a record, I haven’t a clue, Dermot.”

Dermot cleared his throat. “Well, it’s …”

“You’re a National Treasure, Granny.”

Kathleen gave me a look. I was getting no marks for trying.

“Dermot, put another little drop in there, just a tiny drop, I’ve no head drink, never had.. It’s very good isn’t it? Is it Irish”

“It’s made in Antrim, not far from Ballycastle.”

“Ballycastle. I was there once. ‘I had four green fields, each one was a jewel’,” she sang. Then she sighed and rested back on the pillow.

“Ah well. What cannot be cured must be endured.”

She closed her eyes. Dermot pointed to his watch and mouthed, Should we go? I was just gathering up my things when she opened her eyes.

“How’s your brother?”

“What brother, Granny?’ I asked, disappointed that she’d grown old and confused after all. Or was it just the whisky?

“Your brother Daniel, of course.”

I smiled, gently.

“I haven’t got any brothers, granny. You must be thinking of somebody else.”

Kathleen sat up, a look of deep sorrow on her face.

“Ah, Janet, don’t do that! Don’t cast him from your heart!”

“I’m not, I swear to you, I don’t have a brother…”
“Your own flesh and blood, Janet, don’t harden your heart against him, no matter what his parents did, he’s not to blame, sure he’s only an innocent baby.”

The penny dropped. My father and Sally, his new wife, had produced a son but no one had bothered to tell me.

“Oh, of course, that brother! Sorry, I completely forgot. Oh, he’s fine, he’s fine. Yes, doing very well. He’ll be walking soon, I expect.”

“Walking? Wouldn’t you expect a child of two to be walking ? Is there something wrong with him?”

“Oh, nothing…specific. He’s just a bit…”

“Ah, no, whatever your father did, Daniel is an innocent child. Isn’t his sister a lovely little thing?”

“Rosemary.” I said quickly, trying to regain ground.

“Lovely curly hair. Your father had the same hair when he was a child. Head full of golden curls.”

“Still has.”

“Indeed. You’ve your mother’s hair.”

I smiled and nodded. I hadn’t, but I let it go.

“You’re the most like your mother. Big boned. Poor Celia. Darlings, you’ll have to excuse me, I can’t keep me eyes open.”

She lay back on the pillow.

“We’ll come and see you again,” I promised.

“You’re welcome any time you’re passing.” She closed her eyes, a smile on her lips. Dermot put his chair back and we left.

 

We drove down to Bull Island, parked the car and walked out along the harbour arm to watch the sun slip down behind the Dublin hills. I saw Kathleen, a young mother, striding out, Carmel in her pram and the boys running to keep up.

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