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TRISHA McKINNEY

 

 

 

Trisha McKinney

Trisha McKinney lives and works in Dublin. Competition successes include winner of the RTE Guide/Penguin Ireland short story competition (2013) and Bord Gais short story of the year award shortlist. She has read her work at The Lonely Voice short story competition in the Irish Writers’ Centre and has been published in Crannog magazine and online in Wordlegs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Night-Shift

 

 

Ruby tried to shake off the nursing home, but its fibres clung to her skin – urine, disinfectant, faeces. At three am, she’d discovered Noble Norah dead in the bed with her nightdress up around her waist, and now that morning had come she needed to feel the pulse of someone young, a firework display exploding inside her is how she liked to think of it, something to balance another death passing through her. 

She worked two nights a week in St. Jude’s: dressing and undressing, washing and cajoling the Zimmer-framed, walking-stick-dependant, wheelchair-bound, bed-ridden residents of number 22 Cedar Grove, and hated every minute of it. 

Some days she came on duty determined to look beyond the shrunken eyes and collapsed mouths, but it was hard for her to see the good in what was left. Optimism slipped away like water through her cupped hands, so that by midnight all she saw were humps across backs and voices that spoke of regret. She heard the uncertainty of past decisions in every shaky utterance, and felt the fear of bodily functions spilling out in conversation as if she was one of the old dears herself.   

‘Nurse, Nurse,’ the constant pleading for reassurance while Ruby patrolled the corridors, taking short sharp steps, the muffled jingle jangle of every locked drug cupboard swinging from her left hip. The silent slippered shuffle of the more able-bodied residents saddened her, when they had the effect of cheering everyone else up. 

‘Well done,’ other nurses would compliment. ‘Good man. You’ll be running out the door in no time.’

Ruby smiled through a closed mouth to stop herself from screaming, ‘What’s the point?’ 

            The young man eyeing her up at the bus stop had dimples and a few days’ stubble. She could smell his whole life ahead of hima North East wind, sea spray, beer, shaving foam, scented candles, basmati rice, steak and onion sandwiches on batch bread, and these were only the small things, half a century before bedpans, commodes and incontinence pads kicked in. The thought of old age creeping up on her made her feel violent, crazy, so when he looked at her, she held his gaze, all tiredness gone from her eyes. She needed to feel 18, not 81. It was a weakness of hers, the morning after the night shift. 

When her girls were small she put in the hours to pay for the extras: music lessons, tennis, swimming, holidays abroad, dentist bills, little things that made all the difference. But that was then.

            ‘Do you work up there?’ the young man asked throwing his head in the direction from which she’d come. 

            She glanced back at the avenue of oak and birch, landscaped gardens and spear-headed railingsthe order and maturity of the grounds, the dignity of the setting, mocking the reality inside.  Like a fantastic wrapping on a torn and broken present, she thought, like me at forty-five years old.    

He was wearing jeans, and a faded black top with the buttons open at the neck. He had shoulder-length hair and one gold sleeper. His brown leather jacket, scratched and torn at the cuff, would’ve been expensive once, a birthday present, most likely chosen by him and paid for by his mother or father. She had the measure of him in no time; she was good at that, sizing people up, or so she thought.

She held her coat open and rolled her shoulders back, accentuating cleavage underneath her v-necked top. When opportunities like these presented themselves, she was glad she had left her uniform at work. 

‘Friday and Saturday nights. Can you smell it?’ 

‘Not from here,’ he replied, taking a step closer.

So his accent was country. That was a good sign; he was probably living in rented accommodation.

 ‘What’s a young man like you doing out and about at this hour?’

‘Late night,’ he grinned, ‘she turfed me out before the parents woke up.’ 

Ruby arched an eyebrow and smiled.    

She thought of her own night, the heat in every room that made her want to smash something, the smell of thirty nine bodies in the last months and weeks of life suffocating in a dry airless space. Bells ringing, cot sides rattling in distress, and as the night wore on exhaustion scratching the inside of her eyes. 

‘Sounds fun, though I wouldn’t throw you out of bed in a hurry.’

‘Didn’t get that far.’ He had a cheeky grin a fine set of middle class teeth. She’d be safe with him. 

‘How old are you?’

‘Nearly twenty-four.’

Ruby smiled. The ‘nearly’ gave him away but she didn’t mind. He was too young to realise that old is not just the flash of a wrinkled face behind the steering wheel of an oncoming car or the stooped raincoat holding up the queue in the local shop. He was too young to know that old is a lot worse than the memory of your granny in the corner. That what remains is a kind of slipping, slow and steady, a tap not turned off properly, the last years dripping, and Ruby thinking how it would be so easy to put everyone out of their misery, a few extra pills, if only she could be assured anonymity. 

‘How old are you?’ he asked.

She burst out laughing. ‘Me? Thirty... plus.’

‘At your peak then?’

‘There’s only one way to find out,’ she flirted and made a note of the time, 8.06.

A double-decker squealed to a stop beside them and its doors parted with a hiss. It was that simple: Ruby stepped through them, her mind made up, and he followed.

She flashed her bus ticket at the driver as if it was an invitation, and then made for the stairs with the urgency of a teenager. He came bounding along behind her, eager. As the bus lurched around the corner he put his hand out to steady himself and touched her breast.

‘Sorry about that. I thought I was going to fall over.’

            ‘It was quite enjoyable,’ she grinned. She knew he was testing her, making sure he wasn’t imagining what seemed to be happening.

‘I so need a bath,’ she said lifting both arms upwards and closing her eyes. She let her head roll, the curve of her neck stretched for him while the bus rolled through quiet Sunday morning streets. She could feel his thigh warm against her leg, his muscles tight under his jeans. She checked her watch again: 8.12. She was making good time.

‘This is my stop,’ he said, pressing the bell and getting to his feet.  ‘There’s plenty of hot water.’ 

‘Are you sure?’

‘Absolutely,’ he grinned and took the hand she held out for him. 

Just walking beside him made her feel ten years younger. He had long legs and boots with buckles. The confidence of him, the cowboy clang, thud, clang, thud next to her soft- soled flats chased time away. He had inexperienced written all over him.    

‘Do you live alone?’

‘There are four of us,’ he said. 

‘Oh.’

‘They’ll all be in bed,’ he added quickly and turned the corner. It was just as she’d expected, a row of red bricked houses with doors in primary colours and hundreds of stories like this one trying to clamber out of sash windows. ‘The flat’s just up here on the right.’

‘So what are you studying?’ 

‘Veterinary Medicine.’

‘Trinity?’

‘Yeah,’ he said, taking a small bunch of keys out of his pocket. His hands were shaking. 

It’s mad, she thought, the way they can cut through flesh and bone without a quiver, and get in such a fuddle about nothing.

‘I’m glad it wasn’t too far,’ she murmured pressing her body against him. Her watch said 8.18. 

            The look he gave her when he closed the door was one she’d seen before. Last minute wavering. It was perfectly natural.

He blushed. ‘Are you sure about this?’

            In answer she lifted her top over her head and shook her hair out.

The entrance hall was wide with torn wallpaper and bicycles against the wall. In a different part of her life she might have taken his hand and kissed him but there was no time for that. He pulled her towards the stairs: to his single bed with unwashed sheets and the intimate details of his youth in her face. 

‘No,’ she said. ‘Let’s stay here.’ 

His eyes bulged.  

And then?

There was the usual pulling and rubbing, a certain degree of friction, tongues tasting, his teeth in her face, his warm hot mouth, one or two word-utterances at intervals. Ruby stood on her tiptoes, her clothes rearranged somewhat but still connected, as though she was not committed, not entirely part of the interaction. Sex this way could be forgotten in no time. 

            ‘I feel a lot better,’ she said as a sort of compliment and slid away from him. ‘It’s only 8.33,’ she smiled and pulled up her pants, but he didn’t appear to be listening. 

‘I better get a move on.’ 

 He managed to raise his head and nod.

‘Good luck with your exams,’ she said, pulling the heavy door behind her. She marched back the way they’d come, delighting in the discovery the whole detour had only taken her fifteen minutes and twenty five seconds. Nobody could begrudge her that. For some people, minutes don’t even register.  

            On her walk home along cherry blossoming streets, an idea came to her concerning the use of an egg timer. As she turned the corner into her own street, she resolved to carry one in her coat pocket the following weekend. At least now she felt a little better, the anger and depression of earlier had left and the sight of magnolia petals spilling over hedges and gates pleased her. She had a beautiful home, a three bed semi-detached with a garage and a decent sized garden, but it was the distance between people she loved most about Ranelaghthere was no shortage of students when you needed them.

            She took a deep breath as if about to go under water and turned the key. Inside the hall studio portraits of the children smiled at her and she was greeted by the warm smell of the central heating, the sweet perfume of three-day-old lilies on the oak table, and the hint of last night’s tikka masala. She took off her shoes and carried them in one hand as she tiptoed on deep carpeted stairs, into the family bathroom. Ruby washed the night shift out of her system and then climbed into bed behind the wide back of her husband. The previous twelve hours had no hold on her here. 

She wrapped her left arm around the warm flesh of his waist and let her body shadow his in shape. 

‘Mmh,’ he muttered and took her hand in his. 

‘How was it?’

            ‘Same as ever,’ she said closing her eyes. ‘I think I’ll give it up.’

            ‘It’s not as if we need the money. And I miss you at the weekend,’ he said turning to face her.

Ruby opened her eyes. The colour of his skin had changed over the years and his eyebrows had become bushy and grey. When she was in her twenties and eager for married life to begin, all she could see was the future they would have. 

Now all she saw was the past.  

 

 

©2014 Trisha McKinney

 

 

Author Links

 

Trisha McKinney at Irish Book Awards

Crannog Journal

'Three Sisters': story by McKinney in Wordlegs

 

 

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