You have no items in your cart. Want to get some nice things?Go shopping
I may not be good enough to marry her daughter and raise her grandchildren, but it seems it’s perfectly acceptable for me to push Shelagh Maloney around the steep slopes of Southern France in her wheelchair.
For the best part of twenty-five years I’ve tolerated her. At first I thought she was over-protective and didn’t want her youngest daughter whisked off across the Irish Sea by an Englishman but then I realised the truth: she’s selfish, a liar, and one of the most despicable people I have ever met.
“Trevor’s no good for you. Why don’t you marry that Patrick Cullen?” she said to Mary while I was in earshot. “He’s a good Catholic lad. Why shack up with a heathen?”
Mary came close to cancelling our wedding when Shelagh said she wouldn’t come. She spent countless nights sobbing on the phone, urging her to reconsider. Shelagh turned up on the big day and, having successfully made the event more about her than it was about us, spent the service staring into a corner. She only perked up when the registrar invited the guests to state any lawful impediment to the marriage. Whenever I bring it up with Mary she says there was only ever doubt about Shelagh coming to the wedding because she’d been struggling to get over the flu, but I remember the truth much clearer than Mary does. For instance, later I approached her with a slice of wedding cake. She crossed herself and muttered, “Forgive my daughter for her sins” and when she thought I wasn’t watching she picked at the cake, like a vulture over a fresh carcass. But Mary won’t listen to me when it comes to Shelagh.
I travelled with Mary over to Ireland regularly to visit, despite being made to feel as welcome as a bout of food poisoning. I took the children to visit their grandmother and always bit my lip and didn’t let on that she was a hideous monster.
We holidayed together only once. When James was two, and Mary was pregnant with Kaitlyn we took the ferry across to Dublin and collected Shelagh en route to a rented cottage in Clonakilty. When James threw himself to the ground and started pounding his fists Shelagh muttered, “He’s his father’s child.”
I’m a man of remarkable willpower, and as we stood at the edge of a cliff outside our cottage I somehow resisted the temptation to give her a nudge. Sometimes I think back to that missed opportunity and imagine her tumbling over the edge, crashing into the cliff face then spiralling into the water. I hear her final cries before she sinks beneath the sea foam.
I swore never to go away with that woman again, so when Mary suggested we take her to Lourdes after her second stroke I may have suggested a preference to spend a long weekend in Hell with the devil himself.
“But Trevor,” Mary said, taking my hand in hers and stroking the back of my hand, “it would mean so much to her.”
We’d have to dip into the savings account. The fully-restored MGB Roadster I’d had my eye on would perhaps have to wait for another year, or six months if we did the holiday on the cheap, but I could never say no to Mary. “It would be a pleasure,” I lied. Shelagh had once said my children would have a better chance in life if I was hit by a bus, but I never wanted to do anything other than make Mary happy, and if that meant another holiday with that papish harridan I was willing to make the sacrifice.
Our hotel is advertised as a five minute walk from the centre of Lourdes, but what it doesn’t mention is that it’s up a steep slope and that the pavements are in a terrible state due to a series of abandoned road-works. The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes comes into view as we reach the bottom of Rue de la Ukraine and Shelagh coos. Mary stoops to mop dribble from the right side of Shelagh’s chin while I gaze at the Sanctuary. The steeples of the Upper and Rosary Basilica reminded me of the last time I was in France, when we took the kids to Disneyland Paris.
We have to turn away from the sanctuary in order to follow the road. We zigzag along a couple of streets until the roads level out and we emerge into a row of shops selling identical tat. Shopkeepers with tiny eyes stand hungrily among their wares, hands poised by bum-bags bulging with change. Reams of plastic rosary beads hang from shoddy metal frames. There are mugs and t-shirts emblazoned with the image of Bernadette Soubirous cluttering every shop. If this is Catholic Disneyland, then Bernadette is Mickey Mouse. On the shelves are large plastic water bottles and next to them buckets filled with smaller bottles. Some are in the shape of the Virgin Mary and you twist off her head to fill the bottle. It wasn’t until someone walked by, straining their arms carrying two five-litre bottles of water that I realise they’re for collecting the Lourdes spring water in. Shelagh mutters to Mary that they should pick up some bottles to take water home.
“Of course,” I say, “We couldn’t take much liquid back on the plane.”
That shuts her up.
I see a sign for the chateau fort. “Shall we check it out?” I say and Shelagh’s Sanctuary timetable droops in her hands.
There are dozens of steps up to the entrance to the castle, and no slope.
“I can’t go up there,” says Shelagh.
“They must have a lift,” says Mary. “I’ll ask.”
“No, no, no, I don’t want to be trouble.”
No trouble? Shelagh? The first time I took Mary on a date, Shelagh called the Garda and told them I’d kidnapped her daughter.
“Let Trevor go have a look on his own.”
So that was her game. Separate us. Not a chance.
“How about we get you a drink,” I say, gesturing to a nearby café. “We won’t be long.”
“We can’t leave her,” says Mary and I see a smile spread across Shelagh’s whole face.
As I head towards the entrance a couple of around my age approach. Both look like they’ve caught the sun even though it can barely be twenty degrees.
“You speak English?” says the man, with a strong Irish accent.
“Yes,” I say. “What’s up?”
“Do you happen to know where a cash point is?”
I point him to an ATM we passed a couple of streets back. He introduces himself as Jimmy and his wife as Margaret.
“I’ll be back in a mo,” says Jimmy and heads off.
“You going up?” says Margaret looking back up at the chateau fort.
“You on your own?”
“No, I’m here with my wife and her mother.” I turn to point them out in the café.
“That never is Shelagh Maloney?”
I follow Margaret as she trots over. Turns out she’s a fellow Bray resident, and Shelagh is a friend of her mother’s.
“Why don’t you both go up?” says Margaret to Mary. She turns to Shelagh, “we can have a blather till you come back.”
From the top, the Sanctuary looks like the fairy-tale play set we’d bought Kaitlyn from Disneyland. You can make out the nuns identical in their habits, like ants, far below.
“Do you think she’s okay down there?” asks Mary. I turn away and look at the snow-capped peaks of the Pyrenees.
“She’s really not well enough to live on her own,” says Mary as she puts her hand on my shoulder. “It might be best if she comes to stay with us for a bit.”
I wonder if the birds circling the distant valley are vultures.
“You’ve got to get over your problem with my mother,” she says and removes her hand.
“I’ve got to get over my problem with her?” I say, glaring. Tourists glance. Necks crane. “I go out of my way for her and she resents it. She hates me.”
“You’ve been against her since the day we got married and don’t you try to deny it.”
“She tried to ruin it!”
“She was no trouble then, and she’s not now. Besides, she’s here to make her peace,” says Mary and she tries to look into my eyes. “Perhaps you should do the same.”
It’s typical of Shelagh. Mary once accused me of blaming Shelagh for all of our arguments; she couldn’t see how her mother’s meddling was the problem. But Shelagh has always gone out of her way to make things difficult. She threw herself down the stairs shortly after her first stroke. It was the day I had an interview for a new post at work. Big promotion. More money. Mary must have told her when it was. While I was waiting to be called in to the interview, my phone rang. It was Mary, crying so hard that she could barely talk. Eventually I understood that a neighbour of Shelagh’s had found her collapsed at the bottom of the stairs and had called for an ambulance. Mary wanted me home immediately so we could arrange to fly out there. I never sat the interview so the job went elsewhere, as Shelagh had planned. By the time we got to Bray she was back home, sitting with her feet up by the fire, with only a few bruises to show for it.
When we get down it’s clear that Shelagh’s been talking about me. Margaret gives me a fierce look then nudges Jimmy on the arm. He finishes his drink and they make their excuses, exchanging pleasantries only with Shelagh and Mary.
“So we’re off to Our Lady of Lourdes now?” asks Shelagh.
Before I can think of another excuse, Mary agrees. I take hold of Shelagh’s wheelchair and make our way towards the sanctuary. I have to swerve the wheelchair onto the road to avoid the beggar sitting on the path and Shelagh winces as the wheelchair drops from the kerb. With a satisfied smile I look up at the churches. ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’ plays in my head and I’ve got a suspicion of how this is going to play out. Shelagh will drink from the waters of Lourdes and be cured. Not fully, she’ll still need our care, but she won’t have to play up to it quite so much. The truth is that if there is a God he’s more likely to canonise me for all I’ve had to put up with.
We follow the crowds towards the grotto. Tarnished taps line the wall. People fill canisters and spilt water gushes down the drains. As we get closer to the grotto the smell of cheap unscented wax grows stronger. We queue for the best part of half an hour to circle the grotto. Shelagh stretches out her hands and touches the Massabielle rock. I can’t help but touch it too. It holds the warmth of all the people that have rubbed it and I feel the need to wash my hands afterwards.
“I can feel it,” says Shelagh.
I smile. Here it comes, her ‘miracle’. She’s probably already planning another funny turn next year so she can fleece me into another bloody pilgrimage.
“That’s great.” I say.
Mary looks at me and a wrinkle of worry appears on her forehead.
“Maybe we’ll get you out of this wheelchair yet.” I say and the old charlatan falls for it.
She starts to push herself up with her left hand, and her left leg stretches out before she falls back. She takes a few deep breaths. “Help me, Mary.”
“No, Mam, you’re too weak. You’ll hurt yourself.”
“I can do this.”
Mary holds out a hand, lets her mother take hold and, after some shifting of balance, they get Shelagh upright. While she takes a moment to steady herself, a small crowd gathers around us. A nun brings her hands together.
“Put the wheelchair in front of me,” says Shelagh. “I can use it like my frame.”
She never told us she had a frame.
She takes three or four steps then comes to a stop. “That’s enough,” she says, and I help Mary to position her back in the chair.
When we’re on the way back to the hotel for dinner she insists on buying some rosary beads as they’ll give her some hope to hold on to. After looking at a dozen different sets of beads in as many different shops, and feeling the weight of each, she picks the tackiest set possible. They glow-in-the-dark.
After dinner Shelagh complains that she’s too tired to return to the Sanctuary. We’d planned on witnessing the candlelight procession tonight but I guess she doesn’t want her miracle cure to be too convincing.
“Maybe you’ll feel up to it tomorrow?” asks Mary.
“Maybe. Now I need to sleep.”
Mary takes Shelagh to her room to help her prepare for bed.
“She’s not doing well,” says Mary when she returns. “She seems very weak.”
“Oh, I’m sure she’ll be fine,” I say and pour myself another glass of wine.
“You don’t care.”
“Oh, I care all right. But I know a fake when I see one. Surprise, surprise, the magical Lourdes water revived her.”
“Didn’t you see her today? She could barely look up to see Our Lady.”
“Did you know she had a walking frame at home?”
“Of course I did. I ordered it for her.”
I take a long sip of my wine then say, “So you know she’s not as bad as she makes out?”
“She’s in a terrible state.”
“Horseshit Mary. Can’t you see she’s playing us? She’s not nearly as sick as you think.”
“Isn’t she?” Mary pulls a handkerchief from her pocket. I can see the blood spots before she unfolds it. “I found this hidden in her sleeve.”
She probably planted it there. She must have sacrificed some small animal before the trip to create a convincing prop.
“I’m going to bed,” says Mary.
I refill my glass and wait until I know she’s asleep before I follow.
“Wake up, Trevor,” I feel an arm on my shoulder and something touches my cheek which makes it spasm. I sit up and wipe away the tiny wet spot on my face.
Mary’s eyes are red, her face wet. “She’s gone.”
Gone where? I glance at the window and see a low sun peeping through a gap in the curtains. I imagine her strolling through the streets. Perhaps nipping to the bakery for a sly breakfast croissant and slipping back into bed before we wake.
“Well, she can’t have gone far,” I say.
“No Trevor. She’s gone. She’s dead.”
I follow Mary into Shelagh’s room. Sure enough, there she is. Light pours in through the open curtains and shines on her skin. The bone seems too close to the surface, like she’s not real. I turn away and realise that I can see the Sanctuary out of the window and that’s why these rooms were so expensive. I only turn back when I hear Mary moving. She kneels beside the bed and wraps her hand around the string of glow-in-the-dark rosary beads that hang from her mother’s cold fingers.
I leave Mary with her mother, fish some of the travel documents out of the suitcase and then head down to the lobby to make some calls, but the instructions on the payphone are in French.
“Can I help you, Sir?”
I turn to see a young man in the hotel’s yellow and blue colours.
“My mother-in-law…” and I pause, unsure of how well a euphemism like ‘passed-away’ will bridge the language gap. “She is dead.”
“Sir, I am very sorry to hear. You want me to call a doctor?”
“It’s a bit late for that.”
“Sir, to get… proof of death.” He hurries over to the phone and starts yapping away in French.
She was crafty, but faking her own death is probably beyond her.
He returns. “He will be here in one hour.”
The thought of sitting around and waiting with Shelagh is not appealing, and since being in the lobby with the smell of breakfast starting to waft through is making me hungry, and I’d not paid the extra for breakfast to be included, I decide to go for a walk to the bakery.
After filling up on a couple of pastries I wander back to the Sanctuary. Already there are nuns pushing elderly people around in wheelchairs, some of which have oxygen tanks attached to their frames. Among all of the elderly a young girl in a chair stands out. She’s not being pushed by a nun, but by a man that’s probably her father. He looks like he’s aged prematurely, with his thin hair and wrinkled brow. She is looking round at her father and she raises a hand to point at the swans on the river. They both smile. She deserves a miracle. Maybe Shelagh did.
She came here because she wanted more time. She wanted more time with Mary. They were always so close. I don’t remember the last time that Kaitlyn called, and specifically asked to speak to me. I don’t remember one single conversation that I’ve had with James since he became an adult. We stopped talking when he entered that grunting teenager phase, and I guess I stopped watching to see if he’d come out the other side. They always got on with their Grandma though. That’s another thing I resented about the old bag, learning what my children had been doing through her. I look up at the three spires. Maybe it is time to make peace.
I sit and hold Mary’s hand as the doctor takes us through the forms that he has filled out. I look at her and smile as she shares stories about her mother. When we meet the funeral director I put my arm around Mary as he talks through repatriation arrangements.
“I’ll leave you for a moment to look over the cost, so you can consider your options,” he says and slides a leaflet across his glass-topped table.
I look at the four-figure numbers on the page. “Insurance covers this, right?” I say.
Mary dabs the corner of her eye with a handkerchief, and makes a slight movement with her head. “No,” she says. “We couldn’t get full cover with her condition. And what with you wanting to keep the costs down…”
I look again at the numbers and picture an MGB Roadster, cruising along a country road with the top down, speeding off and leaving me stranded on the verge. I picture Shelagh in the passenger seat, tipping her head back and cackling.
She did this on purpose.