Dublin City 1917
Jo Kingsley awoke from a troubled sleep. Her eyes flickered open, and her gaze rested on the thick velvet curtains, partly drawn across the bedroom window. The street lamp shone through, casting shadows on the ceiling. She glanced at the holy pictures on the wall that had always been a source of comfort to her. But tonight the Virgin Mary did not appear to be smiling down on thirteen-year-old Jo. A distant scream reverberated around the room. She felt a stab of fear and reached across the bed to her grandmother.
‘Grandma. Grandma, please wake up.’ With trembling fingers, she traced the outline of her grandmother’s face. It was cold. Startled and distressed, she drew back in the clear knowledge that the wailing sound was none other than the Banshee.
Jo scrambled from the bed, hurried down the stairs, grabbed her black woollen coat from the hallstand, and ran barefoot from the house. Her long fair hair flew out behind her as she raced down the street to her mother’s cottage. The Dublin streets were dark and dimly lit, and the frosty pavement made her feet tingle as she hammered on the door. Her stepfather, Tom, wheezing and gasping for breath, finally opened it. She stepped inside.
‘Ma! Ma! Come quickly, something’s happened to Grandma.’
Kate, a thin woman in her early forties, appeared in the doorway of the bedroom, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. ‘What in the name of God brings you out at this time of the night, girl?’
‘I think me grandma’s dead,’ Jo cried. ‘I… I heard the Banshee.’
Kate sprang into action. ‘You look after things here, Jo-Jo. Sleep on the couch for now.’ In minutes, her mother was dressed and rushing up the street.
Five-year-old Liam cried out in his sleep, and Tom handed her a cover before going back into the bedroom and closing the door behind him. Jo held the thin well-worn blanket close to her shivering body. She didn’t want to be here. A dull ache gripped her. How could her grandma be dead? She’d been all right when they’d bid each other good night. Powerless to stem the tears that trickled down her cold face, she sat in the darkness. What would happen to her now? She bit her nails, digging into the tops of her fingers until they hurt.
The room smelt damp and Jo had no recollection of ever living here. Now, whenever she had cause to visit her mother, it was a sharp reminder of how lucky she was to have been brought up by her grandmother. She curled up on the couch but couldn’t sleep.
She heard coughing, and a shaft of light appeared in the doorway. Tom shuffled into the room clearing his throat, carrying the twins. Jo swung her feet from the couch onto the cold floor. ‘Is there anything I can do?’
He shook his head, too breathless to speak, and placed the whimpering babies down next to her. He lit the lamp on the table and turned up the wick. The light threw shadows across the room, the wallpaper peeling from the walls. Jo looked down at the children’s thin frames and spindly legs, and covered them with her blanket. Innocent eyes looked up at her, the same blue as hers, except theirs were hollow and lacked lustre. She shivered and wrapped her arms around herself to keep warm. The reality of her mother’s life hit her and brought a lump to her throat. She felt sorry for the children, who, in spite of the cold, had fallen asleep.
Feeling wretched and helpless, she made a fire from the turf piled up in the corner by the hearth, hoping it would take the chill from the room. She glanced across to where Tom was lying with his head down on the table, his bald patch visible and a blanket pulled across his thin shoulders. There was no sound apart from his laboured breathing as he dozed, and the sparks from the fire as the turf ignited. She filled the black kettle and hung it on one of the hooks over the fire.
The cupboard was bare apart from a packet of oats, and she wondered if her mother was drinking again! She made the porridge. It was tasteless, watery with little substance, unlike her grandmother’s creamy porridge. Her poor grandma! She had looked after her for as far back as Jo could remember.
Tom stirred and looked across at the sleeping babies, yawned and stretched his long thin arms. The kettle hissed and spouted water, almost extinguishing the fire. Jo got up and made a fresh pot of tea. She poured Tom a mugful and placed it on the table next to him. He was coughing again, beating his chest with his clenched fist. His consumption seemed worse and she pitied him. ‘Tis always worse at night,’ he told her.
‘The porridge is a bit thin, but it’s the best I could do.’
‘Aye! It’s grand.’
When at last daylight seeped through the thin curtains, her mother hadn’t returned.
The room depressed her and she wanted to go home to her grandma’s.
‘I’m going back now, will you be all right?’
‘Aye. Thanks,’ he managed between a fit of coughing, calling out to her when she reached the door. ‘Sorry… for your trouble, Jo.’