Noreen

 

By Janet Behan

 

Noreen alone. She is stomping up and down performing some domestic task. Her home is a complete tip, cluttered, untidy and unhygienic. Her tirade begins softly, her stammer fading almost immediately. Sound of dog barking, subsiding into a growl.

                                                Sh-sh-shut up! Shut up!! Am I to be driven m-m-mad with your barking! Le le le lazy mare, is it? Lazy mare indeed! One of us is a lazy mare all right! Didn’t I tell him? Pat, she won’t take care of it, sez I, in the end it’ll be me, and now look. Pat, I said to him, if that dog comes in here I walk out, that’s the last you’ll see of me, Get rid of it straight away, sez I, ah NO, ah Daddy no, let me keep the dog, I’ll take care of it, I’ll take it our for walks and feed it. Didn’t I know how it would be? Now look at you, lazy skite! Not at a bit of it, divil a walk nor anything else, you lazy wee SKITE! Trotting round on your kitten heels with your skirt up round your arse with those whores, unmannerly little WHORES from school. Well, I’ll put manners on ye, you’ll feel the rough side of my tongue, don’t you worry. Never fear me for that. Never fear me for that… Lazy mare, is it? If I saw you do a hand’s turn I’d fall down dead in a faint. One of us is a lazy mare alright but it certainly isn’t me!

How, in any case, could you keep a place nice in this kip, this filthy stinking hole? Rubbish blowing up and down the street, dirt streaming in at the window every time you open a door. When I think of the lovely home I kep for Daddy in Thurles – carpets, curtains all clean as a whistle, you could have eaten your dinner off the kitchen floor, the gleam off the taps would have taken your eye out. Dirt had nowhere to hide. Not like here, not like this stinking hole, and SHE in and out a thousand times a day, letting in rubbish from the four corners of the earth, in and out with her so-called friends and HE, tramping in the muck of the world, in off the sites, straight into the living room, boots still on, doesn’t even BOTHER to take of his BOOTS, does not even BOTHER, not so much as a hello Noreen, not even “what’s for tea, Noreen?” and he’s off out to the pub. Big PAT, Tipperary Pat, everybody’s friend, big old Pat. Always stands his round, always good for the lend of a loan, Pat’ll see you right, you have only to ask. Only he doesn’t see me right. He doesn’t see me right. Falling into the bed half cut, without so much as washing his hands, the dirty pig, and still he expects…? Dirty PIG! DIRTY, DIRTY PIG!! I’m telling you, boy, come near me again with that thing and I’ll chop it off for you! You won’t be so big when I’ve finished with you, I’m telling you boy! I’ll chop it off for you, CHOP, CHOP, CHOP!

Doorbell next door. Indistinct sound of next-door neighbour talking to delivery man, baby gurgling. “Look, babba, Mummy’s got a pressie!” “Anywhere in the box, madam.” Baby shouts. “he’s got a good pair of lungs on him” “You can say that again!” “Have a nice day” Thank you, and you! Come on babba,- ooh, pooh, you stinker!” Door closes, faint sound of mother and baby ascending stairs next door.

Would you listen to her? (mimicking neighbour’s accent) Oh hello Pat, how are you Pat? Oh, certainly I’ll pop in for tea, oh definitely, oh that would be super. That would be bloomin’ MARVELOUS, Mrs ENGLISHIFIED BBC, WITH YOUR TEN FOOT TRELLIS! lookin’ down your nose at us and Pat lickin’ the palm of your hand, like an effin’ poodle. You and your BBC husband!

She assumes she does, she looks at Pat and THINKS she does, but she knows FECK ALL ABOUT ME! I come form one of the most respected families in Thurles, thank you very much. Thurles or round about even.   Didn’t my Uncle Joe Lawlor have the best butcher’s shop for miles around, highly respected, right in the square, only the sweepings ever went to Hogan’s . You’d never know what you’d be getting. Right on the square, my uncle’s place was. And yes, it is true, there was a lot a talk about uncle Joe. When he took up with Mairead, it was said she was way too young for him and that was the cause of the trouble. People said. People said she was lonely, stuck in the house with a man twenty years older than herself, but surely to God, how could you be lonely in a town the like of that, where everybody knew everybody. Not like here, not like this God-forsaken hole. If I went home tomorrow, the whole town would turn out for to meet me. No, if she was lonely, she’d only herself to blame for it. But she always kept herself apart. Thought she was better than the rest, and that was her trouble. I offered to do the wedding, gave them a good price, but “No, Noreen, I wouldn’t hear of it, sure you’re family, I’d want you to enjoy the day.” I knew what she was really thinking, of course. She was marrying money and she wanted the money to be on show, you only had to look at her dress. Not that I thought much of it, and as for the food – well. I could have done a lovely spread for far less but that was what she was like, she’d listen to no voice but her own.

Noise of back door opening, radio from next door, neighbour cooing to her baby.

If I told him once, I TOLD HIM A THOUSAND THOUSAND TIMES! PAT, I said, GIVE UP the idea of England! Stay here where you’ve the respect of your neighbours, where you’re well known and respected. Don’t go among strangers. Don’t do it. Do you want to be treated like dirt? Stay here, Daddy will find work for you. But I was NOT heeded. NOT ONE WORD.

Noise of dog going crazy, noise of baby crying and being comforted, “did the bad doggy give you a fright, aw babba!” Neighbours back door closing, barking subsides.

I was never heeded. And wasn’t I right? All well and good for him, out and about all day in all weathers, I’m stuck in here forced to put up with the likes of next door, Mr STUCKUP ENGLISHY-FIED BBC with his ten-foot trellis and his OH SO ENGLISHY wife, Mrs STUCKUP, with her PRECIOUS BABY, I HEAR YOU MISSUS, talking to MY HUSBAND! I see you TWITCHING YOUR NETS! I’m onto YOU, MRS STUCKUP ENGLISH! KEEP TO YOUR OWN SIDE OF THE FENCE OR YOU’LL BE HEARING FROM ME! I adored my Uncle Joe Lawlor, worshipped the ground that man walked upon and I was always his favourite, I might add. “Lamb chop,” he used to call me, “my little lamb chop. I’m going to gobble you all up” Then he’d start tickling me, saying “D’you give in? “D’you give in? And I’d be laughin’, struggling to get away, trying to speak. Mammy used be very sharp with him, telling him to give over. He’d set me down then, light as a fairy, and he’d rummage in his trouser pocket and pull out two toffees, one for him, one for me.   He told me my Mammy was always sharp with him, even when they were children together, well, she mightn’t have liked him but he meant the world to me. She tried to poison my mind against him, said I was to watch him and tell her if he ever tried anything, whatever she meant by that, but I knew it was all in fun. He loved his two girls, wouldn’t have harmed a hair on their heads. There was lots of filthy talk once the news got out, dirty disgusting talk. I wouldn’t put past my own Mammy to have started it, because she’d always disliked him, for no reason, ever since they were children. But it was the talk that killed him. Yes he had the cancer, but he never fought it, just rolled over, turned his face to the wall and died. I have never, never forgiven my Mammy for that. Although people said it was the shock that brought it on, and they may be right, got knows it was shocking enough. What drove the woman to do it, only God will ever know, she must have been wrong in the head, though to look at her you’d never have known. Wasn’t I in their house the previous Sunday, her cutting ham sandwiches with not a bother on her, Joe, sitting by the range bobbing the baby on his knee? Only two days after he comes home for his lunch to find the three of them bleeding to death on the bathroom floor, his old cutthroat lying next to Mairead’s hand. The blood spread right out across the landing and was dripping down the stairs, they said. Poor Joe. Lived only for his family. He didn’t deserve the things people said about him after.

Sound of telephone ringing next door. Then it’s answered and we hear neighbour’s voice, muffled sounds of happy chatting.

Sometimes I feel as if I – I feel as if I’ve missed my life. Like you would miss a bus or a train. When I was young I used to dream and dream. I was too sensitive. Things would upset me, make me ill. Little things for instance if another child were to torment me on the way home from school. They used to pick on me, I don’t know why, sure I was the same as all the rest. Only I never used to speak much and maybe they resented that. They’d chant their stupid names after me, but I’d give them no answer, just act like I hadn’t a bother on me. All children get bullied as school some time or another, Mammy used to say, you just have to put up with it. Then I started in with the headaches. I’d vomit and have to lie in the dark for days, Mammy used hang a blanket over the window to block out the light. I hadn’t the pills in those days.

That was the cause of my being sent to Winnie, to be near the sea, in hopes, I suppose, it would cure me. Daddy never wanted me to go, of course, but anyway, I was sent. Auntie Winnie a mountain of blubber, Auntie Grettie, thin as a twig. A widow. Spent her life sitting next to the range, waiting for the kettle to boil. Grettie had plenty of room at her house, no children of her own, but it was with Winnie that I stayed; Winnie and Harry and the thirteen children, fourteen if you counted me. Well. We were never idle you can be very sure of that – see that’s what Pat can’t or won’t understand – one child can be as much work as ten! We’d each our own little jobs – “My little Regiment,” Uncle Harry used to call us, we were a real family, never stopped laughing and the dinners Winnie used to serve up! Great mountains of potatoes – “Balls of flour” – and a big hand of pork or brisket, a stew or a coddle.   On Fridays of course there was fish, straight off the quay, but you could tell Uncle Harry didn’t like it. “Eat up, Harry, ”Winnie used to say, “don’t let poor fishy have died in vain.” “I’m eating it, can’t you see I’m eating it.” and he’d be trying to sneak it under his cabbage and the little ones would pipe up, “Mammy, Daddy’s after hiding his fish again,” and Harry would put on the big actor voice – “Betrayed, betrayed by the fruit of my loins.” And he’d stagger about and pretend he’d been stabbed and we’d almost die laughing. Only Winnie never laughed, she’d go very red in the face and say, “Harry, would you ever mind your language in front of the children,” but she needn’t have bothered, we though fruit was just fruit and loin was a loin of pork. That’s how innocent we were.

Somewhere along the line it must have been decided that I might as well stop where I was. I don’t know why, I’m sure Daddy must have been heartbroken at the decision, but there it was. I was supposed to be attending the school with my cousins, but somehow I didn’t ever go. Jackie had a summer job looking after the rowing boats on Lough Corrib and I’d tag along with him, although he used to complain that I was so quiet it gave him the creeps and I was quiet. When I was with Jackie. Tongue-tied. I suppose it must have been summer, because the weather was warm. When work was slack he’d row a boat out across the lough to the old ruined house and smoke a cigarette sitting on the bank. I’d go in for a swim in my vest and pants, though it’s heavy swimming in a lake, not like the sea, nothing to hold you up. I’d float on my back holding onto the reeds. And when he was rowing back I’d lie back in the boat with my eyes closed, listening to the water lapping round me and willing him to kiss me, lay down beside me, on top of me. Sometimes the dream would be so strong that I’d open my eyes and be amazed to find him reading his paper or smoking. And the day did come when it wasn’t a dream. I thought the pain would be too much for me, that I’d cry out and ruin the moment, but I just squeezed my lips together to hold back the cry and kept my eyes shut tight. I kept them shut tight for a long time after. And when I opened them he was smoking a cigarette and pretending like nothing had happened so I just pretended nothing had happened as well, although we both knew that it had. But that’s Irishmen. Don’t show love.

Sound of next door’s doorbell ringing – dialogue “I forgot my keys” “Look baba, dadda’s come home!” then the door closing, followed by muffled chat, next-door sound of footsteps going upstairs.

Then the headaches started again and the sickness, only this time it was worse, well, Winnie’d enough to do without an invalid on her hands so back I went to Thurles. When the doctor asked me if I’d started my monthlies yet, I hadn’t a clue what he meant. Even after he explained, I still wasn’t sure. He said, “She’s about four months gone, I’d say” Mammy turned white with fury and grabbed my hand, dragging me out through the door without a word. Soon enough she got on the telephone to Winnie and I’m telling you, boy, there was ructions. Though nobody said a blessed word to me. A week later Mammy packed a bag for me and I was frogmarched down to the station. I didn’t mind, I was happy. I naturally assumed I was going back to Galway, I was being thrown out and sent back to Winnie, that was the only logical explanation. Back to Jackie so’s he could do the decent thing. After all, in that house, one baby more wasn’t going to make a blind bit of difference. When we got off the train at Athlone, I still didn’t catch on. I thought we were stopping at the convent so I could rest or something. Even when we were having a cup of tea with the Mother Superior, I wasn’t really listening, I was thinking about Jackie, what I’d say to him when we met, how soon we’d be married, what I’d wear. Then Mammy got up from her chair, pulled on her coat and picked up her handbag. I got up to go with her but “No,” she says, “You’re stoppin’. Try to be good.” And with that she goes. I just stood there with my mouth open.

The Sisters were sweet the whole time Mammy was there. When she took off leaving me behind, it was a different story. From the moment the gate banged shut, shutting me in to the moment five months later when it banged to, shutting me out, they could not have been colder. Granite was putty, compared to them. I was made to work like a dog. Scrubbing the stone floors on my hands and knees, never allowed beyond the gate, like a prisoner, which I suppose, looking back, is what I was. They had me working every hour God sent, with never a kind look or word, right up until labour started. And I never got to hold my baby, never even saw him, except for the moment he was born. I watched them wrapping him up in a sheet, wiping his face and the top of his head with a sponge. Rough. The way a farmer would wipe off the teats of a cow he was going to milk.   Then he was taken away, the door swinging after him.  For a long while I waited for them to bring him back. I knew enough by then to know I couldn’t keep him, that I’d have to give him up eventually, but never to even have kissed him, never even to have held him. I couldn’t stop crying; one of the Sisters said, ‘Wait ‘til you have your tonsils out, then you’ll know what pain is.” I suppose she meant to comfort me.

Sound of rock music too loud from next door.

Jesus me head is splittin!

 Muffled noise of wife calling up stairs to tell husband to turn music down. He shouts “What?”. She shouts again and he turns it down.

 Mammy told everyone I’d stopped on in Galway, for a little holiday, “for my nerves” she told people. That was the reason that was given, although everyone knew fine rightly what the real reason was, you only had to look at me. No one, inside or outside the family ever mentioned my baby. If even Galway was mentioned they’d quickly changed the subject. But I dreamed about it all the time – if it hadn’t have been for the dream I think I’d have died there and then and I do dream about it still and I dream of Jackie and of my baby son, and I do dream we’re all together and we go rowing out across Lough Corrib and have a picnic by the old ruined house. And my dream is my life, not this horror, this is only a nightmare and one day I’ll waken up and I’ll step out of this house and I’ll go. And why shouldn’t I go? There’s nothing to stop me, the door’s not locked. I could just get up out of this chair now, walk out the door and just keep going. Train to Holyhead, Dublin Boat, Heuston to catch the train, stopping off in Athlone for the baby, then on to Galway and I’m pushing the pram – where did I get the pram? – I’m pushing the pram down Shop Street and turning into Winnie’s lane and there’s the house, the door stands open and everything’s the same, fat oul’ Winnie and little Grettie, waiting for the kettle to boil screwing up her eyes against the sun streaming in and she smiles when she sees its me and the baby and we sit down to tea and I don’t see Jackie at first because the sun is shining in my eyes and he catches me round the waist and holds me so tight I can hardly breath and he’s kissing me and telling me he loves me and he’s always loved me. I could go. I could get up this minute and go. I could walk right out through that door this minute and nobody in the world could stop me…

Sound of dog barking, baby crying next door, phone ringing, neighbour answering, music turned back up. 

(shouting) AM I TO BE DRIVEN R-R-ROUND THE B-B-BEND WITH YOUR BLOODY RACKET?? ROUND THE F-F-FECKIN’ BEND!   PAT, I says to him, I’m telling you BOY they are the NEIGHBOURS FROM HELL, BUT I’ll put up with it so long and no longer and you can tell them from me, I’ll have a thing or two to say about them and their ten foot TRELLIS and their effin’ RADIO turned up full all hours of the day and night –  Mrs Englishyfy, looking down her ENGLISHY NOSE at me. Her and her effin’ garden and her effin baby and her effin’ BBC husband and her effin’ trellis.

The End

 

 

 

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