Mairead, my eldest Sister who had emigrated to Canada before I was born, but came home to visit one summer, had a daughter who I met when we were both about ten. She spoke of her school and her days there. Apparently, there was a kindly adult called a teacher who taught such mysterious subjects such as maths and geography. Art was the highlight of the day, where she could paint pictures of anything she wanted. Her chosen subject matter was trees. Green on top and brown on the bottom just like the trees on the street below. Flowers adorned the ground. Pink, red, blue all myriad of colours. Oh so spectacular. I wondered if the children in the school I could hear from my window painted pictures too.
On my trips to the beach, I would replicate these pictures in the sand, visualising the rocks and shells I substituted to be such colours. Such vibrant colours. Pink shells made beautiful flowers. I never tired of creating such masterpieces. When I returned to the beach, the tide had always cleared my canvas, allowing me to create once again. Endless creations outside the room. The days the room was locked a hidden shell or rock would suffice. It could become a tree, a flower, a mermaid, anything my imagination revealed. I never tired of this visualisation even into my teenage years.
Mairead’s daughter, Ciara, was the first child with whom I had tried to communicate. I had only observed children from a distance up until then. I did not talk much and certainly not the language of play, a language I had never learnt. She played with her brother. I observed but did not join in. I had been warned not to talk to anyone. Not to tell anything.
My silence didn’t seem to bother Ciara. She would just talk enough for us both. She told me all about her life in Canada, her dog, her brothers, her Father and how he played with her. Mairead would take us to the beach where Ciara would swim but I could not. I was not allowed. I loved being at the beach, my precious escape from the confinement of my room. The beach was freedom and being there with another child who was talking to me and telling me all sorts of exciting things made it all the more special. I loved those outings. I loved being with Jean. I knew with absolute confidence that one day Jean would rescue me from the room to live with her in Canada. It would happen. It must happen.
At the end of the day we would have dinner together in the Hotel dining room with the other guests. I would still be quiet, recognising some of the male guests and wondering if anyone there was curious about my disappearances. Did everyone know of my room and what happened there or just some of the men? Jean never came to my room. She and my other siblings did not stay in the Hotel where I lived. They stayed in another seaside town Hotel that my parents also owned. No one shared my room’s a view of the world. It was a private, cloistered, imposed world known only to the initiated. Those approved by my Mother.
However, the most exciting days in the room were when the fire truck pulled up under my window to refill their water tank from the bowser on the street below. I knew them by name as I could hear the jovial conversation passing back and forth as they waited for the truck to fill. Stories ranged from “How are the chil’der Jack ?” to “O didn’t I get home from the Hotel a bit late last night after one too many and got the black face from herself this morning”. Detailed discussions were had about Mr O’Brien’s fishing catch the day before and how good a price he got at the Market. Farmer O’Bhrion’s sick dairy cows were talked about with the compassion only concerned friends could have. The forthcoming GAA Hurling game was deliberated with passion. If there had been a wedding held recently the bride’s father was congratulated heartily and the “Mrs”, praised for the “Turn out”. “Best dance in a long time Ardan and you stepped her out well”. “Young Darragh will provide for her well, Ardan, you have no worries there, he comes from good stock being an O’Connor of Ballyfermot”. These caring conversations rose up and were received joyfully by my welcoming ears. The Fire Station was located in the nearby town of Gurrah, so the truck’s weekly visit to refill its tank it attracted the attention of the villagers eager to hear any news. There was all the time in the world given to each and every person that passed. Each child’s gleeful wave and calls out would be generously returned. Mrs. Connaght stopped with her toddler Conor in his pram on her way to do the shopping. He would be lifted out of the pram and into the truck by one of the firemen so he could pretend to drive the enormous vehicle. He would chortle with delight and a grateful Mrs. Connaght returned the favour with some convivial conversation appreciative of the pleasure they were giving her young son.
Oh, how I envied young Conor! The firemen noticed him. Each week he would be given his treat by the men in red. They took care to make him smile and give his mother a well-earned break from her late morning shopping, as everyone knows shopping with a toddler is fraught with difficulty. I was just above their heads and dearly hoped that they would look up and see me. Notice me. Observe me eagerly peering through the window, desperately wanting the kind attention Conor received so freely. Surely Mrs. Connaght would look at a bird flying overhead and see my face at the window. A whole village passing by stopping under my window each week and no one looking up. I was invisible. Cast aside by the world below the room. The world ended at the panes of my window. I could look out but no one could look in. I was persona non grata to a village of people so concerned and caring for each other.
All that my mother and the men said must be true. My duty was to them and I was of no use to anyone else. Some of the men told me that only they loved me, cared about me and would look after me. It was only them I should trust and must not listen to anyone else. Why then did it feel so wrong? Why did what they did to me each night hurt so much? This was not the world my cousin Ciara had described. Not the world I saw from my window but couldn’t touch. My “little head just topped the window-sill; …… pressed upon the pane, as children will, And watched … the world below “playing, Oh wistfully” while I rotted above. I so wanted to join the world and be noticed but it was not to be. It is an adults world. They hold the power and children are but a pawn in the game of the chess of life at the behest of their playing parents.