As a Doctor I have reason to visit the sick in their homes and several years ago, while paying a professional visit at the house of a small tradesman in the town of Belfast, I made the acquaintance of an interesting old woman, who had been employed by the tradesman to nurse his ailing wife. There are always people, especially among the female gender, who will never refuse to carry out a duty of care, especially if the person to be cared for is already known to them. This old lady, Mrs Waters, was one of those caring ladies that people can depend upon. Within a very few minutes we became good friends and she persuaded me to extend my visit for several hours, and when I eventually left the house I was as familiar with her life story just as if I had known her for many years.
I have told you that she was an interesting woman, and so she was. This was not immediately apparent from her appearance, and there was nothing that could be said to be attractive about her. Neither had she any refinement in her manner or the way in which she spoke but, she could be said to have been rather brusque and hasty in both word and action. Nevertheless, she possessed an irresistible power in the rapid glance of her large bright eyes. At first sight you might think that, from the haste which was evident in all her movements when attending to the needs of the house and family, she must be a harsh and unfeeling type of person. That would be a grave error, however, for she was really one of the kindest and most tender-hearted of women I have ever met. It didn’t take long for me to discover that she was actually a neighbour, and that she was a woman of independent means, which she had gathered together through her own hard-work. She had worked from an early age, and she had also taken great care of an invalid husband for many years and had managed to educate and provide a profession to her only son and child.
The old woman peaked my interest greatly and I decided that I would like to become better acquainted with her and the life she had led. Not being a man who was reluctant to ask questions I was soon able to discover quite a lot about her and her life. She was known in the community as a ‘knocker-up’, the duties of whom I will explain as we proceed. But, she was proud of what she had done and when asked about it she told me, “Not at all, my boy! I am not ashamed to tell you just how I came to be financially independent. Why should I be? An honest woman need not be afraid of anything!” she insisted. “I made it all, every penny of it, by knocking-up. Ay, and well you may look surprised, for I have an idea that you don’t know what ‘knocking-up is’, or if you do, you are wondering how I could save so much money from such a line of work. Now, I don’t mean to suggest that I had no other means of making money, for I started a shop after I began to knock up. However, every penny that I made by shop-keeping was spent in keeping my family in food and clothing, and when my son was put into business, some of my otherwise-made money went along with him. But, I can assure you that every penny that I put by, and the income on which I now live, was got by knocking-up.
“Sure, I know you are wondering how I, a woman, should ever gotten the idea making a living in this way, never mind actually setting out to do it. Well, if I’m going to be honest with you, I never thought of it at all. I mean that I did not invent such a job, for it was actually suggested to me and I was in too great a need to be fussy about what I did. Do you know, I believe that I was near the first, if not the very first who earned money by regularly knocking up. Either way, at the time that I began the job, I knew of no one else who was doing the same thing.
“The idea came to me in this way. My husband had been a delicate sort of man from the day we first met. And he was, God love him, as different from me in spirit and ways as summer is from winter. He had hardly a day’s work in him and I have often wondered what we should have done, or what would have become of us, had it been that I was struck down instead of him. But you see, God was watching over us. It was a good thing in many ways, indeed in all ways, that it was he who was afflicted, for if it had been me, what an ill-tempered and impatient creature I would have been.
“Now it was no illness that struck my man down, but something entirely different. It all happened like this, we had been married about six years, and our son was about four years old, when my man suffered a serious accident. He was working hard in the foundry and lifting a heavy weight when something seemed to snap or give way in his back. He was brought home to me between two men, and from that day until his death, more than fifteen years afterwards, he never did a stroke of work, the poor man!
“Aye, it was after this that the knocking-up scheme was suggested to me and I was glad of it. I had gone down to the foundry one Friday evening for the wee bit of pay which the owners had kindly allowed him to lift for a while, and I got to speaking with one of the men who was working there and had worked with my husband. He asked me about our welfare and I said to him that I believed I should be able to keep the roof over our heads, and that I was willing to do anything that would help me to achieve that. The, quite suddenly he said, “If you will knock me up at three o’clock every morning but Sunday, I will give you half-a-crown a week.” I laughed at first because I thought he was joking. But, when I saw that he was not joking, I quickly took up his offer because something told me that this might just be the beginning of something special.
“The reason why ‘knocking-up’ is so widespread nowadays is simply that people get so used to the alarm-clock that it fails to awake them. Even if it does awaken them, they are sometimes so sleepy that they drop off again before the alarm runs out. This was what had happened to the person who asked me to awaken him. He had lost many mornings work because he had over-slept. He worked in the designing office and told me that he could get more work done, and of a better quality of work, during the quiet hours of the morning than at any other time. This is what he said anyway, though afterwards another reason was given to excuse his habit of over sleeping. But, the man was anxious to be up at three o’clock. Well, I agreed to do the job and it was a good thing that I did because before a year had gone past I had thirty customers employing me to do the same job for them. of the like kind. Not for the same hour in the morning, or for the same amount of pay. For the most part these other requests were for a time between five and six o’clock.
“I have no problem whatever in telling you what I earned at that time. Why should I? But let me first explain to you how I went on to grow my business, if I may call it a business. At the end of the first year, as I have said, I had thirty customers. Year by year this number of clients began to increase until, by the end of five years, I had upwards of eighty houses to go to. What is more, for the thirty years that I followed knocking-up after that, thirty-five years to be precise, I never fell below that number. Sometimes I had as many as ninety-five houses. Now, you are wondering what did they pay me for my services? All prices! When I managed to get a few more, early customers, in addition to my first one, I knocked him a shilling a week off because I didn’t think it was right to be still taking a half-a-crown. So, all those clients who were knocked up before four o’clock in the morning paid me eighteenpence a week, and those who had to be awakened soon after four were charged a shilling a week. Those clients who had to be aroused from five to six o’clock paid me from sixpence to threepence weekly, according to time and distance that I had to go. Of course, the greater number of customers were in the threepenny class.
“You might have a little trouble in seeing how I managed to get through so large a number of houses in so short a time, but I can assure you that I did. I also found out that a workable system was very much a needed thing to have, you may be sure of that. Then I discovered short-cuts to different neighbourhoods and streets, and I took care not to let the grass grow under my feet in keeping my business going. Another helpful talent that I had, of course, was an innate ability of rousing my employers quite quickly. Perhaps it was that my knock or ring or way of tapping windows was more effective than that of other ‘knockers-up’. Irrespective of all that, I managed to get through my engagements morning by morning. Now, of course, you are eager to find out what my weekly earnings were. Well, I’ll not keep you in suspense any longer, young man. For thirty years I never earned less than thirty shillings a week, though it was mostly thirty-five shillings and, when I had a good lot of far-away or very early customers, I could pick up as much as forty shillings in a week. You look unconvinced, but I assure you that what I am telling you is the truth. Two pounds a week for calling folks to their work, in the morning.
“Now, I’ll admit that I am not very strong or healthy as I once was, but how can a woman of seventy years be expected not to have some aches or pain after the life I have lived? But, in all those thirty-five years that I worked at the ‘knocking-up’, I never had what may be called a sick day. Dear God, sure I hadn’t got time to be laid up in a sick bed! I totally believe my early rising, and the exercise in the open air, kept me healthy. At those times when bits of cold did get hold of me, my spirit and attitude did much towards helping ward them off. Let me tell you, Spirit is everything! Did I go to bed during the day? Never! I could not afford the time for such luxury because I had my shop to take care of. You look a little surprised, but I have already told you that I kept a shop. At the time I didn’t know how long my husband might linger, and then I became so wrapped up in my poor lad’s future, for I was determined that he should be a doctor or a lawyer, or something smarter than a tradesman. Because I had such a good long day before me after my ‘knocking-up’, I decided that I would open a shop of some kind.
‘It took me quite a long time to decide upon what I should deal in. I had a natural dislike of giving credit, and as there are some things which women are not in the habit of buying on tick. In fact, when they need these items they never seem to think of asking for them on credit, and it was in such items that I decided to deal in. That is how I hit upon the idea of selling black-lead, blacking, brushes of various kinds, and even pots and pans. Surprisingly, I noticed that when a woman sent for such items she automatically sent the money to buy them. Furthermore, I realised that it would only take about ten pounds or so to get me started in this type of shop, and I saw that there would be little perishable stock or articles that would go out of fashion. An added advantage was the fact that the business did not need much learning or knowledge to manage it, and these were things which I did not have. So, it was in this way that I became a shopkeeper.
“In the beginning I was able to make my cottage do for my shop, using the bedroom and cellar as the warehouse. But, as the trade increased, I had to take the house next to the one I had, and made I made it into a shop and warehouse. Rent and taxes, you know, were not too heavy then. You know, I began this business after I had spent five years ‘knocking-up’ and only stopped about six years ago.
“I didn’t give up because I was tired of work. But, I saw that I had enough to live upon, and I now had no one belonging me to live for. My husband had been a long-time dead, and my poor son had also been taken from me. Did I sell my business? No, I did not sell either business. There was a poor man, a neighbour of mine, who was laid off his work and, as he had a large family, and his own shop was running from bad to worse every week, I just handed over the knocking-up to him. It has been a good thing for him, thank God. As for the other business, I just allowed my customers to spread themselves among other shops as they thought fit.
“You might wonder if I had made any bad debts the knocking-up business? Well, I will tell you there were not too many and, perhaps, less than you might expect. For one thing, I took pretty good care of my money, though it did take gathering in. I usually got paid on a Saturday afternoon and night. Some called and paid me as they passed my house and others left it with those appointed by me to receive it. One way or another, I got most the greater part of my money week by week. To those who began to be a bit forgetful in paying me, I just gave them the slightest hint that if they did not pay up that week-end I might forget to knock them up and let them overlie themselves now and again. This soon put the forgetfulness out of them, for they knew they would lose a deal more by being fined at the mill than they had to pay me for a whole week’s knocking-up. So, in all honesty, I had very few customers who did not pay up old scores. Of course, I am ignoring those whom I did not care to press for payment. These were often men with large families, or men who had had a fit of sickness or the like, or a poor delicate woman. But, let us pay no attention to that for they might have done the same by me.
“Aye, now there is a good chance that a knocker-up will find out what sort of tempers their customers have. God knows that I soon came to know who the surly ones were, and who were pleasant folks, or who were short-tempered and who had good patience. You know, when knocking-up began to be a regular trade we used to rap or ring at the doors of our customers. But there soon arose two objections to this way of rousing them. One objection came from the public, and the other came from the knockers-up. The public complained of being disturbed, especially if sickness was in a house, by our loud rapping or ringing; and the knocker-up soon found out that while he knocked up one who paid him, he knocked up several on each side who did not pay. It did not take us long to invent the fishing-rod-like wands which are now in use. Aye indeed, the knocker-up has a wand of office, and I was among the first who adopted these rods. With these wands we would give a few taps on the bedroom window, which no one hears but those who should.
“I will tell you that a surly, or hot-tempered customer, would growl or knock things about as he came to the window to reply, and his responding rap would sound as peevish as possible. But a good-tempered man was always quite pleasant and cheering to get out of bed, for you could almost hear from his very footstep that he was grateful, and his reply-tap sounded quite musical. Moreover, when he spoke to you and bade you a good-morning, it was truly encouraging. I have even had occasions when I knocked some men up for nothing, just because it was pleasant to hear them, especially after you had had two or three of the other kind to deal with. There were others that I had given up knocking, for no other reason than that they were sulky or angry at being disturbed and generally unpleasant. I can recall one particular man on my rounds. He was a little, slender, ill-featured man, who always reminded me of a weasel, and he had to be up at five o’clock. But, the same man was fond of the drink, so he was not only difficult to awaken, but he never came to the window without indulging in angry mutterings, which were not always the sort of things you needed to hear at that time in the morning. He was one of my shilling-a-week customers and paid regularly. But I was so pissed-off by his lousy temper and insulting ways, that at I finally gave him the elbow as a bad job.
“Surely, you would agree that a ‘knocker-up’ really deserves the gratitude of his customers and should not think that we are well compensated when we get his money. They should not forget that we have to be out of our warm beds in all sorts of weather and cannot allow a bit of a sniff or a tooth-ache to keep us at home. But, the customer can sleep on the whole night through, in peace and contentment, because they know that they will hear the wakening taps on their window at the right time. Surely, there is no person that can think that a ‘knocker-up’ is a selfish man, or even a selfish woman. No money is so well spent as that which is paid to the ‘knocker-up’ and I believe most who pay the money think the same.
“For several years I ‘knocked-up’ two young women who were sisters. They had been left orphans when they were very young, but the poor things stuck together, went to the mill, saved their wages, and finally were able to take and furnish a room. They got me to knock them up, for they kept their own little spot clean and tidy, mended their own things at night, and they went to bed tired and often late, which caused them to sleep heavily. Well, as I’ve said, I knocked them up for years and they would not let me do it for nothing. No, not even now and again. One or the other of them always had a “Good-morning,” or “How are you this morning, Mrs McNamee?” in a low kind tone for me. And about once a quarter they would invite me to spend a Sunday evening with them and take a cup of tea. Let me tell you, if any people were grateful for what I did for them, it was these girls.
“Now, I suppose you want to know how and when did I get my sleep? Well, I’ll tell you. I always went to bed at nine o’clock every night, except Saturdays. Of course, because I had an exhausted body and a contented mind, it didn’t take me very long in dropping off to sleep. And I was up again at half-past two exactly, for my first customer lived a good twenty minutes’ walk from my house, and you know he had to be awakened at three o’clock. Well, for some time I had no one else to arouse until four o’clock, so I used to come home again. Before I went out in winter I would build the fire up with ‘slack’ and get myself a cup of tea. But, in summer I would let the fire go out, and would not light it again until I came back from the early customer. Then I always made my poor husband a cup of tea, after which he slept better than he had in the earlier part of the night. You see it was he who had to awaken me, because being young and very active during the day, I slept soundly. What between him and the alarm, I never over-slept. No, not even once. But after I had been about six or seven years at the job, I got to awaken quite naturally. Indeed, it was well that I did, for when my husband died, I no longer had him to depend on.
“I can tell you also that the worst weather for any knocker-up is wet weather. Oh, it was try one’s patience, to say nothing of one’s health, to be pelted with rain and wind. Then when the streets were filled with snow and slush it was anything but pleasant. But, I always tried to think of the good I was doing for others and thinking that way proved to be a wonderful help. In fact, even a chimney-sweep or a street-sweeper could be happy in his calling if he only took such a similar view of his work. Why, we are all helping one another as well as earning our livings when we follow our vocation in life. But, I have to admit that it was an extra nice job to be doing on a fine spring or summer morning. I used to be happy all over on such mornings.
“Maybe you would like me to tell you something about my son. To tell the truth, I seldom feel like I want to talk about him because when I do talk about my dear boy, it has taken me many a day to get his image out of my mind.”
At this point I respectfully asked Mrs McNamee not to go on with the story, but she did. It was interesting and touching in some of its details, but since it is not relevant to this particular story I have decided not to include here.
In the local health centre there was a new, young, female doctor attached to the practice that Maura attended. Being young and new to the practice she, not surprisingly, wanted to make a good impression, and so conducted a thorough examination of Maura. Fortunately, on this occasion, Fiona decided to accompany her to the doctor’s surgery and she listened attentively to what the doctor had to say. After the examination was complete, the young doctor told Maura that she would make arrangements for her to attend the hospital for a series of tests. At the same time, the doctor also promised that she would do everything in her power to ensure that the tests would be carried out as soon as possible, and, in the meantime, she would take some blood samples. Maura was, of course, concerned and a little upset when she was told that hospital tests would be required and she asked, nervously, “Is it something very serious, doctor?”
“To be honest, Mrs. Magowan, I will not know anything until the test results are returned to me,” the doctor smiled reassuringly. “Once we know exactly what we are dealing with, then we shall be able to treat it rapidly and efficiently so we can get you back to full health.”
“She’s right, Mammy,” added Fiona comfortingly. “Let us get these tests over and done with so we can treat you before it becomes any worse. Sure, I’ll come with you to the hospital, for you know what Daddy’s like about those places.”
It came as a great surprise when, barely two weeks after seeing the doctor, Maura received a letter from the hospital offering her an appointment ten days time. Fiona was excited for her mother and she urged Maura to call the hospital on the phone and confirm the appointment by telling them that she would be attending. Encouraged by this piece of good news Maura and her two daughters went out shopping for some new clothes that she might need if she was going into the hospital. Then, later that same evening, Maura sat down with Johnny and told him that she would be going into hospital to undergo some tests.
“Sure, Maura, it might not be that bad of a thing,” Johnny tried to assure his wife. “It will, probably, only be that IBS thing that has got so popular, or just an ulcer of one kind or another.”
“I think it might just be a little more serious than that Johnny!” she said, but appreciated his efforts at trying to comfort her.
“You worry too much Maura, as you always do. I’ll bet you that when you get these tests they will say you’re as fit as a fiddle.”
Later that same evening, as was his usual custom, Johnny went to the club, where he met Luig in the snug. They talked in whispers to each other, and Johnny told her about Maura’s impending hospital appointment and how worried she was. But, as they talked quietly, unknown to them, a close work colleague of Maura, called Dympna Murphy, saw the couple getting rather cosy with each other, and she decided that this was more than just an innocent friendship. She had come to the club with one of her friends and asked her, “Who is that with Johnny Magowan?”
“Oh, you haven’t heard the gossip have you?” the friend replied quietly.
“Now, would I be asking you such a question if I knew who she was?”
“Hush, for Jesus’ sake! Not so loud,” Dympna’s friend urged. “That’s Johnny’s fancy piece.”
“His what?” exclaimed Dympna, in shock and disbelief at this sudden revelation. “She’s not that bloody fancy!”
“It’s that girl with the odd name, Luigseach. But, she just calls herself Luig. Luig McGirr and she’s Johnny Magowan’s bit on the side,” explained the friend. “It has been going on for quite a while now. I’m surprised you haven’t heard about it until now.”
“What, in the name God, does the like of Johnny Magowan see in that witch?” sighed Dympna despairingly.
“Typical man, he’s always looking for his comforts. I would say it’s not what he sees in her, but what she does for him,” laughed Dympna’s friend loudly and gathering attention from around the room.
“The dirty old bitch! How could he prefer the like of that instead of his wife, Maura?”
“I don’t believe that Maura knows anything about the affair, to be honest. I definitely would not like to be the one who tells the poor woman, if you know what I mean.”
“I know exactly what you mean,” sighed Dympna. She knew already that Maura was going to attend the hospital for tests. She was of the opinion that any such disclosure should be left until after the results of those tests were known. But, Dympna was equally determined that, as Maura’s friend since childhood, she should let her know the secret.
When the day for attending the hospital finally came, Fiona, as promised, accompanied her to the hospital and Johnny drove them to the appointment. As is usual in all hospitals, Maura was called and brought to an area where she and Fiona were told to await the doctor’s call before they could go into the consulting room. After another lengthy period of waiting both ladies were brought into the room by a nurse.
As Maura walked into the office, the doctor greeted her courteously, “Hello Mrs. Magowan. Sorry for keeping you waiting so long.”
“It’s fine,” she told him politely.
“Well, we have several tests to be done and we may have to keep you in overnight on the ward,” the doctor began. “First I have some questions to ask and then the nurse will take you to the ward and help prepare you for what lies ahead. Now, the first test will not be carried out until this afternoon, and there will be a short wait until the next test. We will make every effort to ensure that you know what we are doing it, and when.”
After thanking the young doctor, Maura and Fiona were shown up to the ward, where she undressed and put on a nightdress and a dressing gown. Almost immediately nurse followed nurse, as question followed question, and they checked this and they checked that. Temperature, blood pressure observations were taken, along with a heart trace carried out on a portable ECG machine. Finally, a nurse inserted a ‘butterfly’ connection to the vein in Maura’s left arm. This was to be used only if further medication had to be delivered intravenously. With such attention from the nursing staff the time appeared to fly past until lunch arrived in the ward. Maura, however, was not interested in eating food, being too nervous even to eat a morsel.
Almost immediately after lunch Maura’s first test was carried out, involving a body scan rather than an X-ray. Once the scan was complete, Maura was taken to another department in the hospital, where she was given an ultra-sound sweep of her abdomen. Because of the waiting times in between scans these procedures took up most of the afternoon. When Maura returned o the ward she was served a light tea, but she could only nibble at a slice of wheaten bread and drink the cup of tea provided. She was tired and bored. So far all that had been done was answer questions and have scans completed. There was not, much to her frustration, one word about what they were actually testing her for. Fiona, however, continued to support her mother and to keep her spirits up by ensuring that any dark thoughts of her mortality did not linger in Maura’s mind.
There were no more tests that evening and Maura suggested that Fiona go home and get some rest. Eight O’clock was the start of visiting time, but Fiona did not stay and an exhausted Maura prepared to get some sleep. For several weeks she had become very concerned about her health, and she had said prayers to every possible saint asking them to protect her from her worst fear, which was contracting cancer. Maura had seen people die as a result of this devastating disease, and she had no wish for her family to witness her waste away in a painful journey toward death. Despite the positive messages from others, the reality of becoming yet another statistic in the fight against cancer played heavily on Maura’s mind.
Maura did not sleep well that night in hospital. Her mind was filled with negative thoughts and she cried quietly to herself as she lay in the hospital bed. When the ward came back to life the next morning, Maura was still wide awake. Yawning widely with exhaustion she watched on as the nursing staff began preparing for the changeover of personnel. She got out of the bed and made her way to the nearby bathroom, where she showered and prepared herself for the day ahead. After breakfast, Maura sat in the bedside chair awaiting her next test, but no person came and the doctors began their patient rounds. Meanwhile, Fiona had been allowed into the ward just after breakfast and together they waited patiently for the doctors to come to them.
There were two doctors who eventually came to the bedside, accompanied by a senior nurse. The taller of the two doctors, also appeared to be the youngest, while the other doctor was a small man, wore glasses and looked to be much older than his colleague. The taller doctor pulled the curtains around the bed to give them a little privacy, while the smaller of the two sat on the bed to talk to Maura. “Is this your daughter. Mrs. Magowan?”
“Yes, Doctor,” replied Maura. “This my eldest girl.”
“Is it alright to discuss your case in her presence?”
“Yes, of course, she can stay,” Maura assured him,and the doctor began to explain to Maura that they had examined the results of the previous day’s tests. He told her that they had discovered an aberration of sorts in her pancreas that required further investigation. From what he had seen on those tests, he explained, he felt it was important that she should be made aware of it. He also wanted to mention the need for a swift, exploratory procedure to determine what type of growth it was. The plan was to bring her down to the theatre that very afternoon and, until that time, she would just have to fast.
Maura signed all the necessary papers that she needed to allow the procedure to take place. As she was signing her name, Maura felt like she should ask what the doctor’s prognosis was. But, Maura was too nervous to speak and left it to Fiona, who asked, “Doctor, what do you think this growth is?”
“It is hard to give you an answer to such a question without first doing the investigation. There is, it must be said, as much chance of the growth being nothing serious, as there is that it might be cancerous,” the doctor told her.
“But, what are you investigating?”
“Your mother appears to have a mass of tissue in her pancreas. It is not a big lump but neither is it small. We need to go in and see if that lump is benign or not,” replied the doctor.
“Well, yes. But, we cannot be sure. If it is not benign, however, we will immediately arrange for its removal,” the doctor assured Fiona.
Maura’s heart pounded heavily in her chest when she heard that dreaded word, “Cancer.” The heartbeat increased its rate, as tears of fear filled her eyes, and Fiona threw her arms around her mother to comfort her at this moment of shock. “Don’t be crying, Mammy,” said Fiona softly. “We will get through this together as a family.” But, Maura said nothing in reply and quietly watched as the two doctors moved away from her bed. It was as if she was numb, because she could feel nothing anymore. She felt that every emotion she had was frozen, or replaced by a numbness of the body
Maura’s friend, Dympna Murphy, had called to the house earlier that morning, but it was Johnny who answered the door, much to her surprise. “Good morning, Dympna!” Johnny greeted her, “What’s happening?”
“Nothing much, Johnny, I just called up to see how Maura was, and when she might be back at work,” Dympna told him.
“Well, she went into hospital yesterday and was kept in overnight. It’s nothing serious, she is just getting some more tests done today.”
“Are you going over?” Dympna asked.
“No. You know I can’t stand hospitals, and Fiona is with her anyway. She’ll be home late I’m sure and I’ll get her to ring you,” Johnny replied.
“Thanks, Johnny,” she smiled at him and the, turning her head said, “There’s Frances. Sure, I’ll walk into work with her. See you later, Johnny.”
“Aye,” smiled Johnny as he watched Dympna move swiftly away, before closing the front door.
Dympna quickly caught up with Frances Conlon, another work colleague, and greeted her with a bright, “Good Morning!”
“I saw you up at Maura’s house, what’s happening there? Is she any better?” questioned Frances.
“Well, Johnny says she has been taken into the hospital and is being kept in for some sort of tests,” Dympna told her.
“That doesn’t sound too good, does it?” remarked Frances.
“No, Frances, it doesn’t sound good and that useless lump of flesh isn’t even going over to visit her,” said Dympna. “But, he says, she might get out tonight.”
“I bet you if that Jezebel, Luig, was in the hospital he would be over there in double quick time,” Frances sneered.
“Do you know about her?”
“Sure half the country knows about him and her, the dirty old sod. And his wife not well. But, sure there is no fool like an old fool and Johnny Magowan is proving the truth of that. The man must be stupid, as well as blind, if he can’t see that Luig is just after his money. Anyway, she’s not exactly Nicole Kidman, and the old boot is not fit to lick Maura’s shoelaces. Have you seen that neck of hers, and the wrinkles in it. She’ll definitely not tear in the plucking!”
“Now Frances, don’t hold back. Say what you mean woman, for there is nothing I dislike more than someone who sits on the fence,” laughed Dympna.
The two women began to walk a little faster so that they would not be late for work. “You know, I was going to tell Maura about this carry on,” Dympna declared.
“Rather you than me,” replied Frances. “But the woman should be told the truth.”
“I’ll tell her the first chance that I get,” Dympna promised.
It was lunch time when Fiona reached her parents’ house and entered through the front door. “Are you in, Daddy?” she called out.
“I’m in the bathroom,” came the reply, “I will be down in a minute.”
Fiona moved into the kitchen and switched the electric kettle on so that she could make a pot of tea for the two of them. When Johnny came down the stairs he walked into the kitchen and greeted his oldest daughter. “And how is your mother?” he asked.
“She has all her tests done, but we will not know until later about when she’ll get home, “Fiona told him. “Are you going over to see her this afternoon?” she asked him.
“Ah now, Fiona, you know that I can’t stand hospitals. Sure I will wait here until she comes home,” he told her.
“This is your wife dad! You should go over and see her. She needs you,” Fiona pleaded with a tear in her eye.
“Is there something wrong?” he asked.
“Well, they’re going to check her out this afternoon, but she might just have some form of cancer.”
“Cancer?” he gasped and felt the blood drain from his face. “Oh, my God!”
“Aye, and she will need you by her side if they give her confirmation of that,” Fiona told him sternly.
“I’m no good with sick people, Fiona, and I cannot stand being in hospitals. It would be much better for her if you go, and you can keep in touch with me,” Johnny replied.
“And just what are you going to do? Will you just sit here moping around all day, or maybe it will be over a couple of pints in the club?” she sneered at him.
“Don’t be like that, Fiona, try to understand what I’m going through, especially now that I have heard this terrible news. But she will be alright. She has always had a fear of cancer since her brother died, so she’ll be terrified. Bring her a wee box of chocolates from me and tell her I said everything will be okay,” Johnny told her.
“That will be a great comfort to her,” snapped Fiona. “Just you enjoy your afternoon, for I am away to the hospital to see Mammy!” She jumped up from the seat and moved toward the back door. Taking her car keys, she went around the side of the house, where she had parked her car.
Almost as soon as Fiona had gone out of the back door, Johnny went to the hall where he lifted the telephone off its receiver and began to dial a number. The call was picked up at the other end of the line and Johnny asked, “Luig, is that you?”
“I am just ringing to tell you that I can’t make it this afternoon. Maura is in hospital still, and it could be very serious.”
He listened for a few moments to what Luig said, and then told her, “Well, she might not get out tonight at all. Okay, I will try to be there about five o’clock -.”
“Where at five?” asked Fiona and caused Johnny to jump with surprise. “Who are you talking to?”
“No one!” he replied quickly. Then speaking into the phone he told Luig, ”Thanks for calling. Sure we’ll talk later.”
When he had hung up the phone Johnny found that Fiona was still waiting for an answer. “It was Seamus. He was looking to know if I was up for a drink. I told him no, of course, but you know how persistent he can be. I told him I would maybe there about five o’clock.”
“That’s right Dad, make sure you get your two pints and forget about everything else!”
“But, Fiona -,” he began, but Fiona wasn’t listening anymore and just lifted her purse that she had left behind her before storming out again.
When Fiona got back to the ward she discovered that her mother had already been moved down to theatre. The ward manager invited her to wait in the “Relative’s Room”, where she brought a cup of tea for the anxious girl to drink. It was the first time, since the doctor had spoken to her mother, that Fiona had time to consider what had been said. Before this moment she had never considered the possibility that the family might lose their mother, and she might lose the woman who was also her best friend.
Maura was a woman who had never experienced serious illness in her life, but had always taken great care of her family when illness would strike. Fiona could not visualise a time without her mother, and she sat in that waiting room praying in a manner that she had not prayed in many years. Fiona was a mother herself now, and it began to dawn on her the great difficulties that her mother would have when confronted with the possibility of leaving her children motherless. Bitter tears came into Fiona’s eyes and, as was normal with her on such occasions, she had no tissues in her bag.
The door of the room opened slowly, and the head of a young man peeped in. “It’s only me sis,” said the young man, who was actually Fiona’s younger brother, John.
“John!” gasped Fiona, “How did you know where I was?”
John moved into the room and sat down beside his sister. “I rang the house and Dad answered. I was ringing up to find out how Mam’s tests had gone, and he told me that you were both still here. He also told me that it could be more serious than first thought, so I came straight out of work.”
“Thank God you did,” she sighed and gave her brother a comforting hug. They could now wait together for Maura to return to the ward.
Meanwhile, in Luig’s house, the telephone rang again and she lifted the receiver to her ear. “I’m glad you rang again Johnny. What is Happening? You sounded so strange the last time you rang.”
She tutted and shook her head as she listened to Johnny explain the likelihood of his wife having cancer. It was not an appropriate topic to be talking to his ‘lover’ about, Luig thought. He, however, was so wrapped in this woman that he was not thinking about propriety. “Don’t worry, sweetheart,” Luig told him in a false maternal tone, “if she is that ill there is nothing you can do for her. It’s sad, of course, but it is all too common these days, you know. I’m sure it will be a difficult time for you Johnny, but I will always be there to help you through it. Now, I’ve bought two lovely steaks for our tea tonight and maybe you could get down here for five. Well, if they do ring, you can say that you had to go out for a walk to clear your mind. I’ll see you later then, love you!” She hung up the phone with a large, contented smile upon her face, and with a new and lively skip in her step, Luig moved into the kitchen to prepare the steaks she had bought an intimate meal with Johnny.
In the hospital the minutes passed slowly into an hour, then two hours. Finally, however, the ward manager came into the waiting room to tell them that their mother was back on the ward, and that she was awake. She also told the two young people that the doctor was on his way up to the ward to speak to their mother. “Can we see her?” John asked.
“Of course you can,” said the ward manager. “She is moved into a side-ward for a bit of privacy.”
When she heard the news Fiona glanced at her brother and she could see that he, too, was concerned at this news.
Holding hands, Fiona and John walked slowly toward the side-ward, where their mother had been placed. They were both eager to see Maura, but neither of them was in a hurry to find out the results of the investigation. Their steps were slow, but they eventually came to the door of the private ward and opened it. Before them, Maura lay on the bed, awake, but obviously exhausted by her experience. Her face was very pale, and her lips a purplish-blue colour. Fiona was frightened and gripped John’s hand. “Well mother, decided to give us all a bit of a fright are you?” smiled John in a jocular way.
Weakly, Maura moved her head to look at her son. “John, what took you here?”
“I came to keep Fiona company, and to see you. So, tell me, what’s happening with you?”
“I don’t know son. I have had some kind of an investigation done, and I’ve been told the doctor is on his way to see me,” Maura told him in a low, weak voice. But, before anything more could be said the ward door opened and the doctor entered.
He was still dressed in his blue theatre clothing as he addressed Maura, “Mrs. Magowan, how are you now?”
“Just a little weak, doctor,” replied Maura, “but anxious to find out what you discovered.”
“That is what I wish to discuss with you now,” the doctor explained. “Maybe in private if you prefer?”
“It’s perfectly alright,” she told him, ”this is my son, John, and that’s my eldest daughter, Fiona. I would prefer it if they stayed.”
“That, of course, is your decision, Mrs. Magowan,” replied the doctor, as he pulled up another chair to the bedside. “Now, there is no easy way to speak about these things, so I will keep simply to facts. You, Mrs. Magowan, have an inoperable growth in your pancreas, which appears to be very aggressive. I’m sorry that I have to be the one to tell you –.“
Maura had stopped listening. Her thoughts were already numbed by those terrible words, “inoperable, malignant growth.”
“Unfortunately the cancerous cells are not confined to one organ, but they have spread,“ the doctor continued to explain. “This is terminal, Mrs. Magowan.”
After those words were spoken, you could have heard a pin drop. The silence in that room was so intense. Fiona was already wailing, and had her arms clasped around her mother in the bed. John was frozen to his seat with shock, but he managed to mumble, “What can we expect?”
The doctor shook his head sadly and took a moment or two before he felt able to answer the question that John had posed him. “I know Mrs. Magowan that you are already feeling quite weak and are suffering some pain with your illness. These symptoms will not lessen, but will increase. We will, nonetheless, make every effort to relieve your pain …”
“How long?” asked Maura, almost in a whisper.
“That, I am afraid, is a question that I can’t answer. The growth is quite large and aggressive. All that I can tell you is that it could be months, or weeks, instead of years. We just don’t know, but it might be an idea if you began to settle your affairs.”
There was no reply from Maura, or any of her children. “I have asked for a MacMillan nurse to come and discuss things with you,” the doctor added.
“Thank you, doctor,” Maura spoke with a half-hearted smile. “You have been very good to me.” The doctor nodded his head toward his patient and silently left the room.