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May 25, 2013 / Tina

The Bench

Written Martina Carroll

Joan awoke to the sound of wind and rain, opened her eyes to dim light and shuddered as she crawled out of bed and pulled on the clothes that lay crumpled on the chair. She stepped into the cold bathroom and started to brush her teeth but changed her mind and stuffed the toothbrush and toothpaste into the pocket of her coat. Her teeth could be brushed later at the centre where the water was at least warm. She had a job now, a voluntary job that got her out of bed in the mornings. It was good to have the little room, a squat, but at least it was indoors out of the weather. She stepped outside into the driving rain, walked down the lane, across the bridge, and into the avenue. When she came to the park something made her walk through the gates.

Usually, she avoided the park because of the bitter memories. She glanced towards the bench next to the wall just out of the wind. There was an old woman sitting there, bags perched on one side and wet sleeping bag on the other. She stopped, sat down on the bench, then glanced at the old lady beside her. It was terrible to see women living on the streets, especially at this time of year. They had a lost look and always seemed both mad and sad in equal parts.

The two women sat in silence and after what seemed like ages, Joan turned and smiled before speaking. “I used to sleep here”, she said.

The old woman had appeared deep in thought, a serious, determined look on her face. Joan wondered, “what is she thinking?”

Mel, still tired and sleepy after a cold restless night in the park, glanced at the smiling woman who had just sat beside her, then she looked away, returning to her silent internal dialogue.

Karen, you were right”, she thought, “I should never have left, I should have barricaded the door, but then again the Sprawlings would have found a way in. They still might find me, but they can’t stand the cold and the wet. It’s safe here” she smiled while looking up at the grey lifeless sky, then continued her silent conversation.

“We were so much in love, Dave and me. He worshipped me, but that was before the Sprawlings. I can still see that first one, that grim face sitting next to me in lectures. He followed me everywhere, his droning voice interrupting every conversation. Then more came. They said Dave was only using me, that he had his pick of girls and I was a slut. But the worst thing was Mum. She didn’t believe me about the Sprawlings. I know they got to her but why did she leave? They’re back now but they can’t find me here”. She turned and smiled back at the thin woman sitting quietly next to her.

Then Joan surprised herself by speaking again:
“Would you like a cup of tea? I’ll go and get some. Do you take sugar and milk?”
Mel nodded.

Joan decided that the job could wait. While walking to the kiosk at the gate she reflected on her own life, how she’d come to this point, now thinking about writing her memoirs.
I really need to sign up for that course”, she thought, “start writing it all down before I forget”. The silent monologue, a personal life story she planned to write, started over once again inside her head:

I was 17 when I left Dublin to study nursing in London. I was full of shite” she laughed quietly, then went on,

“I loved being a nun at first but all those stupid stories about black babies. It was the eighties and I really should have known better. But I wanted to save them. I knew nothing but I thought I could save them… Ethiopia… it was the war… I was travelling when I was cut off… so I helped set up the clinic… but the refugees kept coming, at first small groups with hungry children, crying, with big eyes pleading… then more, coming in droves, the light and hope gone from their eyes, listless babies, dead infants still wrapped around their mothers in bright colours that told stories no one heard, just silence and death in my arms in the sweltering heat…”.

The tears rolled down her cold cheeks when she remembered the first time this thought came into her mind:

I am a dead baby, I died”.

It was also the first time Joan remembered him, her father. She paid the man for the tea and headed back to the bench.

“Here you are”, she said softly to Mel.

Mel had been frowning while staring into space. She turned her head as she glanced fleetingly towards Joan, then took the tea and instantly turned away again, gazing up at the grey sky, lost in her own world. Joan knew how that felt; she sat back down sipping the warm drink, instantly returning once more to the story inside her head.

Eight years cut off from the world. I was one of the people, death a part of our lives, every day holding on, clinging, smiling, chatting, busy… Then the end came. Rescued, and sent back, to work in the hospital in London. That’s when the nightmare began. Day after day, images of dead babies mixed with bedpans and vomit and rotting livers of fat empty strangers, more lost than I’d ever been in Africa. Eight months later I walked out the door, just kept walking on and on through the streets of Thatcher’s London, stepping over people sleeping in doorways, searching through bins behind rich hotels, sleeping on the bench, this bench, my bench… I was six months wandering alone through the cold streets until I was found almost frozen to death, here, on my bench”. Joan closed her eyes and allowed her mind to wander while focusing on the rain dripping from the leaves and branches next to her bench.

At that moment Mel finished her tea. She was still engrossed in her own silent conversation. She had vague memories of the hospital. The old questions repeated themselves:

Why did they lock doors at night leaving me trapped with no way to escape those flickering lights? I know it was the Sprawlings, I know that for certain but I had to escape to get past that big ugly bastard at the door. That was a waste of time but it was a good idea hiding the magic pills. When I took them all together I woke up next morning and the Sprawlings were gone. The ward was transformed. It had bright curtains and the sun shone through tall windows that weren’t there before and Mummy was sitting beside me smiling, saying welcome back. She took me home and the Sprawlings stayed away. I don’t know how she did it. I really believed then that she loved me so why did she go away? Why did she do that to me, dying just when I needed her? This is the only safe place now they’re back. They’ll never find me here”.

Mel’s face lit up at the thought and she chuckled quietly to herself looking straight ahead. Then suddenly she jumped to her feet proclaiming

“I was a princess in a magical kingdom”.

She raised her arms up into the air as she twirled around twice then stopped and calmly pointed at the city skyline. Then she looked directly at Joan. Happily, she explained speaking to Joan for the first time:

“there are wonderful palaces and castles with tall towers that reach up to the sky and shine in the morning sun. There are carriages that travel under the ground and a huge ring that lights up the sky at night with blue fairy dust. That’s my kingdom, but now I’m exiled in this cold dark forest. It’s the Sprawlings you know, they’ve taken over. They live in the wires and the lights. I’m afraid to return”.

She sat back down, arms again limp, sadness returning once more as she sat silent, her smile washed away by tears and rain.

Joan looked on, her soft smile showing the compassion she felt for this old lady who seemed so confused and lost. Once more they sat quietly together. Then Joan returned thoughtfully to her own tale, her inner voice continuing the story she hoped one day to write.

I remember when I went back to ‘my magical kingdom’. That was more than ten years ago. It was a happy, hopeful time. After years of counselling, I was able to start fresh with a good job and a nice home, surrounded by family and old friends. I was at peace, a least for a while. It was the Savi report that broke my world. It exposed that holy story of a country hidden behind a veil of silence. My veil and my silence lifted, and the screaming inside my head threatened to burst forth. Then I spoke in whispers, at first to my sister, then my brother and after a long time thrashing through a forest of fear while beating off shame and guilt, I found what I was searching for all my life, the courage to speak to the one person who mattered. I told my mother, and watched, as a grey cloud descended across her eyes and a deep frown began creasing her face, anger welling up as she lashed out red faced slapping my wet cheeks just as she’d done when I was a child. My buried memories came flooding back; Mammy screaming ‘callous bitch… brazen slut… Jesus, Mary and Joseph… get out… get out… get out before I break your back you lying little shit…’. I turned and ran, not walking this time, but running and running… years running… Now here I am back, sitting, on my bench…”.

Joan somehow felt different now sitting there on the bench with this homeless old woman. She turned then, looking thoughtfully at Mel, this sad old lady she’d found alone on the tatty old seat. Joan’s loneliness seemed to evaporate. They were together, this old lady and her, exiled from their ‘magical kingdoms’. She extended her arm and touched Mel’s cold wet hand.

“My name is Joan”, she said kindly.
“I know a safe place where there’s no electricity or lights. It’s cold but it’s cosy and dry and there are no Sprawlings there. Anyway, I’m not afraid of Sprawlings. I’ve fought off monsters and fire-breathing dragons. I know all about Sprawlings. They’re only voices. They can’t hurt us. I’ll take care of you”.

Mel scrunched up her eyes looking directly at Joan.

“Mummy, you’ve come back”, she said.

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