On generosity, idleness and refusing to turn a blind eye.

‘If you don’t slow down, you’ll meet yourself coming back.’ 

You can hear almost the Irish inflection in these words, the way Eileen Furlong speaks to her husband Bill in Clare Keegan’s Small things like these

Bill Furlong runs a coal carrying business in the dead of winter. He struggles, but relative to other townsfolk, his life is prosperous. It is Christmas 1985 in the town of New Ross, County Wexford. The Furlongs have five daughters, and both feel blessed, but Bill is troubled by the way his life has turned out, the drudgery of it all, while his wife, a devout Catholic, is determined to turn a blind eye to what goes on behind the high brick wall that separates the school of two of her daughters, Saint Margaret’s, from the convent where the town’s laundering gets done. 

By chance Bill drops off coal early one morning when he encounters one of the girls housed in that convent. She is filthy, without shoes, her toenails black and surrounded by her own faeces inside the coal room. 

Bill knows little about the girls who work long days at the sinks in the laundries, or on their knees scraping at the floors. These girls are considered wild and untameable, many of them pregnant and sent there to have their babies who are then adopted out. 

Bill Furlong’s mother might well have suffered such a fate but at sixteen when she fell pregnant, she worked in the house of kind and protestant Mrs Wilson, a widow with no children of her own. Mrs Wilson kept Bill and his mother on and raised Bill once he turned twelve and his mother died of a burst blood vessel. 

Bill and Eileen’s five daughters share the promise of a different future. Kathleen, the eldest, Loretta the youngest, and in between Sheila, Grace and Hannah, five black haired daughters and he worries for them when he hears young men carousing down the street. 

After he returns the girl hidden in the coal chute to the nuns, they put on a good show and although she had asked him earlier out of earshot whether he knows where they have taken her baby and noticed the breast milk dripping into her torn blouse, he leaves her behind.

Only later at Christmas, he refuses to let himself be blinded by her plight and rescues her from the coal shed. Even as he knows trouble lies ahead, he takes her home with him. So ends the story of this one small act of kindness.

In those days in Ireland within the Catholic church, its priests, bishops and nuns ‘were all in it together’ with the state. They wielded a power invisible to many but one that infiltrated the entire country except for the protestant sector and left many people wanting to turn a blind eye. 

Good people would not abide this situation if they let themselves know. But they could not. 

I read somewhere recently ‘a mistake made more than once becomes a decision’. It’s a powerful notion and bears some hint of truth. 

At Christmas time, Mrs Keogh from a local café organises lunches as a treat for Furlong’s workers, some of whom are foreign from places like Poland. Every one of them a good worker. Bill tells her that it will be good to have a few days off over Christmas.

‘What it is to be a man and have days off!’ she says. Another truism which Bill Furlong recognises, even as he too finds it difficult to take time off. 

I cannot bear to take time off in idleness. If I have time to spare, waiting for someone to arrive, or caught up in a cancellation or some such gap in the day, I will fill it with reading or writing, with emails or messages to others. I will tidy the kitchen, put away the dishes, walk the dogs. I will not stop. 

To stop is to feel a gap open in my mind where unwanted thoughts trickle in, mostly thoughts about all the things that need doing in my life. I list them in order. For today: the tax; the tidy up of papers for this past financial year; coffee to buy; a return email to write to a friend who has moved away; my blog; and communications for work. 

When the day is over, if I have completed these things, I will establish another list. 

It’s good for me to care for my grandchildren once a week. On that day beyond the washing, hanging out and folding up of clothes, beyond washing dishes on the sink, I spend my time in the company of three children under three. I sit with them. I watch over them. I referee their games. I find things for them to do. I watch as they find things for themselves to do.

I change nappies endlessly when one or another has taken a crap, and repeatedly urge the three-year-old to race me to the toilet as an incentive to get him there. He is toilet trained by day but prefers to sleep in a nappy as if the requirement to hold on at night is too much. 

Little boys, I understand, have a harder time with toilet training than little girls. I do not know why this is and if indeed it’s true. But it plays out in my experience with four daughters who in my memory had little trouble with toilet training by three, but then again even as old as seven, they would occasionally wet the bed. 

Mrs Milanova told me it was as if they were crying, the wee their tears. Perhaps they felt uncontained and could not hold onto all the pain. 

I felt like a failing mother at those times but also tried to let myself off the hook by seeing it as a developmental thing. My daughters, now adults, no longer wet the bed, any more than I do. Over time and with help, you learn the machinations of your body, when to hold on and when to let go.

On days when I care for the children, the endless stretch of hours spreads like a blush and soon I am consumed in the role and do not mind sitting for hours doing little but idling away my time in the company of tiny ones who want only my undivided attention, until each, for short moments only, finds themselves lost in play in one corner of the room. 

One with his matchbox cars lined up in rows, the other with a red plastic fire engine whose button lights up when pressed, and the littlest piling bricks into a basket then tossing them out, only to repeat it again and again. 

And the police cars win out.

Each learning to make sense of the world, to bring order to the objects around them, side by side, parallel play, while I sit by, referee the regular biff ups in between, take the occasional photograph or video on my iPhone for posterity, and let time drift like water. 

Dead objects the once kept us warm

The poncho spread over the manikin’s shoulders and called to me like dolls and teddy bears call to small people in children’s toy stores throughout the world. It was expensive by my standards, a class two social worker in a community care centre, but I knew my husband would not object. 

When I went inside the store and pulled it over my head, its warmth and weight, like a gigantic hug, convinced me I must have it. Mohair and three colours, fawn brown, cream and a dull charcoal, each colour blending into the other reminiscent of tie dying and Appalachian Indians from somewhere far away. 

We were on the cusp of the Easter holidays with plans to go camping with a group of my husband’s friends and although I imagined the poncho would be perfect against the cold nights I worried it might absorb the smoke from the campfire, so I left it in the car. 

I wore wet weather gear instead but longed for a time when I could wear my poncho without threatening its integrity.

I wore it over the next few winters but by the time I reached my mid-thirties and had passed the hippiedom of the seventies, I could not justify its languishing in my cupboard where there was scarcely room for other clothes. I put it into a garbage bag which I filled with items no longer worn and dropped it at the Salvos for someone else’s pleasure.

The poncho stays in my memory as one of those pieces of clothing I can never forget. One I regret saying goodbye to, though I doubt I would ever wear it again and even my children who have gone through their own hippie periods would not want to wear such an item. It has lost its allure. 

To wear the poncho was like wearing a blanket with arms free to move below the fabric hidden from view. And it was shapeless in the way of a tent hanging from my shoulders. My body was hidden. My legs only visible from the thighs down, like two ten pins, and I could slip my hands out to pick things up and do whatever might need attention, like a snail sliding inside and out of its shell. 

It could also get in the way if I needed to move my hands and arms in a hurry. It was good for walking in. 

We must mourn these dead objects, but we cannot let them overtake us in the present. Like regrets we must tuck them away, otherwise we can be paralysed. 

I crawled into bed the other night and worried I might slip into another sleepless night such as I endured the week before, the first time in my life I can remember when beyond waking up around midnight after an hour’s sleep I could not get back to sleep for the rest of the night. 

My thoughts ticked over and over in that cruel restless way when you find yourself thinking about something that’s not too loaded, say about the movie I had watched that evening or plans for the next day, and in the next breath, I should be asleep but find I’m still thinking.

Stop thinking, I told myself. Don’t entertain such thoughts, even the non-stressful ones. You should be slipping into sleep. Why are you caught up in thoughts? 

In time, it was not just the thoughts but my thoughts about the thoughts that kept assailing me, as if I was driving a car and shifting gears too often. The ride became uncomfortable and the more often I jerked myself awake, abandoning one thought for another, I became even more awake, even as my eyes felt like beads of pain. Then still another thought took over. 

I tried breathing techniques, the inbreath for four seconds, holding for seven and then the long slow outbreath for eight seconds, again and again. As I breathed I had no thoughts and I hoped after a series of such calculated breaths I might slip away, but again and again I reverted to consciousness and things grew worse. 

Not only was I now thinking relentlessly about the next day when I would tell people about my restless night, the next day when I would write down the experience, the next day when I would be able to get beyond this endless night, I found myself moving my fingers in conjunction with each thought, as if I was transcribing my thoughts onto the computer and my fingers moved in rhythm with my mind. I tried to still them. To stop thinking thoughts and then writing them down in my head. I sprayed the room with lavender. The stuff I use to settle my nerves when it’s time for sleep. 

Twice with the lavender, and endless times those breathing exercises and all to no avail. When I heard the first tram at five am, I imagined if I could get to sleep then I would at least manage a few hours and survive the day ahead. I wondered whether I was being punished for two days earlier when I was unwell and stayed in bed all day, reading my book. I thought of the book, Maggie about the priests who abused this young woman and my rage towards them. I thought about the priests in my life, my admiration of them when they were more god-like than God.

When I heard that George Pell had died I felt nothing. Even as here was a man whom I consider the core of the problem. His conservatism and hypocrisy. 

I have heard through backchannels from people who knew him, despite his staunch religiosity, he could be exploitative of young men and boys. He typified the priesthood. The things that kept me awake that night have not gone away. The things of life.

When I die, will we leave such a mess for our children that they too will split and divide in much the way my own siblings have done? My own siblings whom I once loved as a mother loves her children. Only now such distance has crept in I feel towards them as towards George Pell, a cold distance, especially towards my brothers.

Our connections lie in the past. They do not exist in the now. When we get together my sisters want to talk about the now. But we have little in common now. Only in the past can I find a connection to them and then when we do, I want to spend time together.

Back in the past as it was with my poncho. Only when we give such things away, like my poncho, like memories of how it was, we lose connections that are hard to revive in the moment that is now. 

I cannot bring my affection back any more than I will ever find my poncho and from now I can only hold to the memories until they too slip away.