‘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.
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.