MY NEW GLASSES
It’s a great song; an Irish song, and yes, I’m Irish, through and through. I Knew my catechism before I could walk, and strode up to the alter at seven with the other little girls and boys; me in my snow white mini wedding dress and the little lads in their brand spanking new suits. It was great. All we had to do was swallow the body of this bloke called Christ who saved us all, never farted in public and threatened us with damnation every day in class, and then we’d get loads of mulas. The old money! Gawd.. it was great. Those were the days. Yup, the grass was deffo greener – and that was way before I started smokin’ the beautiful stuff.
And that’s how it went. You said your prayers, you bid your time in class, you kept your head low and you spoke when spoken to.
Well, that was how it was supposed to go. I never said my prayers, unless I wanted something like a new bike or the likes from God, which I thoroughly deserved by the way, or if I was in another rake of trouble with the parents who threatened me with boarding school weekly (God I would have loved boarding school – it enraged me that they never followed through with that particular threat). They also promised to ground me daily (I didn’t like that one). I was also an atrocious attention seeker, so keeping the head low was totally out of the question, and I’d say I had and maybe still do have a mild form of ADHD, so I never shut up. Ever. In fact, I’d say I interrupted myself once or twice in the midst of conversations too interesting to let go.
I remember First Class. I was put at a table (they weren’t round tables then; they were like two half fifty pence pieces put together and they were a bland grey in colour) with the boys, cause the girls couldn’t do their work with me. And that was where I spent the entire year of First Class. At my Fifty Pence Piece table with the lads. I had great craic with them though. One of them would blow off, or there’d be snots sticking out of Sean Feeney’s nose again and they’d be luminous green, and myself and Deckie would snicker and point and laugh and silently thank God that our noses were normal. And our snots were see -through. The other side of the coin was I got the same punishment as the lads, something the other girls in the class weren’t privy to, because looking back, I suppose, a bunch of little girls sitting together joining dots is almost angelic to look at.
I was on the back end of angelic. I was cute looking in a boyish way, (our postman for years thought I was a chap) and I loved hurling and Bullrush, so it’s only fair to surmise that my teacher, being ahead of her time and treating all of us equally, slapped the living daylights out of me along with the lads when we were bold, or snotting too much. She had a ‘blue bata’ that hung on the blackboard. That was for us. We never spoke about the ‘bata’ but edged by it quietly every morning as we dashed for our seats. That bata had stories to tell, I’d swear to it, and loved contact with the palm of the hand – the more the merrier.
Teacher was a very fair woman. To this day I’d swear to it. She was never cruel, she had no favourites and she never smiled. Yet there was a kindness about her. I can’t put the finger on it, there just was.
My Mother adored me. She used to get all dressed up to go and see Teacher to check on my progress, as I was a miracle in her eyes. ‘A gifted child’ she often said. My older brothers used to call it ‘nuts’.
‘No Mammy’, Robert would say, she’s just mental’. One day Mammy went up to see Teacher as she got a phone call about my eyesight.
‘There’s something wrong with her’, said Teacher. ‘When asked to read her English book she says her eyes get all blurry’. When Daddy heard the news he nearly collapsed with pride. ‘My Majell’, he whispered through leaking eyes. ‘A true Fenian. She won’t even READ an English book’. My brothers went ballistic when they heard, as they had to read all their English books. I tried to extend it to Maths, complaining that the numbers were falling off the page every time I tried short division, but the look from Teacher told me not to push it.
So up to the school trots Mammy. With her new coat, handbag and umbrella, for they make an outfit, even if it is June and 23 degrees outside in the shade.
And so Mammy met Teacher. They discussed my eyesight in great detail and made an appointment in The Clinic for me to be tested and then went on to the subject of my behaviour in school.
‘So how is Majella getting on Teacher? Has she settled in well and is she good at her work?’
I can imagine Teacher trying to find a suitable answer that wouldn’t drive my Mother on to meds the size of manholes, as she was a fair woman.
‘Well Mrs Murphy, let me put it this way. There are three types of children in the world. The first child, you need never say a word to them. They do as they’re told, keep their heads down, do the work assigned to them and are a pleasure to deal with. The second type of child might try to play on you, but a little bit of sarcasm will put them back in their place; and then Mrs Murphy there’s the third child, and the only thing that will work for them is a good, fine, slap. Your Majella is one of them’.
That evening, Mammy came home with a look on her face that said to me, ‘It’d be easier if I just keeled over now’. You know that look. It says ‘Don’t touch me I’m in too much pain emotionally’ etc.
For days I kept trying to get the story out of my Mother as to exactly what happened with teacher that day. Every time I brought up the subject all Mammy would say was, Eyre sure, nothin’ much love. Nothin’ much….’ and she would go off into a little world of her own staring into something which in later years I discovered to be space. Just staring.
Anyway, a child is a child and I soon lost interest in what I thought teacher did or didn’t say to Mammy at the meeting in the school. I was going to The Clinic! I couldn’t wait. The Clinic was akin to going to the zoo for me. I went there to get my teeth checked when I was five, and the dentist pulled my jaws apart, stuck his head in, took the head back out, smiled at me and said to my Mother, ‘Well Mrs. If all had teeth like him I’d be outta business!’ I didn’t know who ‘he’ was and didn’t care what business was either but I got a star and a lollipop so big it took me half the journey home holding my Mother’s hand to finish it. I was hooked. Me and The Clinic were going to be joined at the hip if I had anything to do with it.
Within a month I found I suddenly couldn’t hear a thing said to me, and off I was traipsed again to The Clinic to get the ears tested. I was hooked up to a machine, the nurse gave me a tuning fork just like the one Teacher had and we were NEVER allowed to touch, and I got to listen to beeps that lasted for ages! God it was great. I mean, I was getting a day off school, no slaps, out on the town with Mammy, and guaranteed another huge lolly if I played along a bit, and being a budding actress even then, and even if I do say so myself, I played the part to perfection. I was told that when I heard the beep I was to hit the tuning for off the table. I hit it a couple of times off the table and glanced at the nurse who was satisfied that I was fine, which didn’t suit me, so as we were leaving and she said goodbye to me I just kept walking. ‘I said goodbye Majella!’… I kept walking. Mammy tried to get my attention. She turned back to the nurse and asked her if she was sure everything was ok with my hearing. ‘Can you hear me Majella?’ the lovely lady shouted at me through gritted teeth, or was it concern? Still don’t know to this day.
‘Huh? Did you say something nurse? I… Em.. Am I here? Yah! I’m here!’ I gave her my best smile. You know the one…
‘No! C A N Y O U H E A R M E E E E EEE?’
My Mother marched me back to the table and hooked me up again herself, with the eyes leaking again, muttering something about identifying with Helen Keller’s Mother or something or other and telling the nurse that no child of hers would be left wanton by The Clinic – deaf or no deaf. But I didn’t really hear a word of it. I just couldn’t wait to get my hands on that tuning fork again. I loved banging it in all the wrong places. I couldn’t wait to tell Deckie the next day. He’d NEVER get to hold a tuning fork and bang it on the table without getting a slap.
That day I left the Clinic with Mammy, a big lollypop and two massive plastic things you shoved in your ears that rang all day long. Another great day out.
So we were going to be reunited. Me and the ol’ Clinic. I had long since ‘lost’ the plastic things you shoved in your ears as the lads used to laugh at me and the noise was deafening, but this time I was getting glasses! I could hardly contain myself. Glasses! I wanted blue ones. I love Blue. Blue blue blue. It’s my favourite colour, everrrrr!
I was up at the crack of dawn that morning, got totally dressed myself and made a mess in the kitchen putting the breakfast down so I wouldn’t delay us one bit. Then I ran into Robert.
‘I know what you’re up to ya little freak’, he whispered to me and he smiled in a way that wasn’t really a smile. ‘You’re seven years old and your mitching from school already. I’m seventeen and even I can’t get away with that! Daddy watches me like a hawk to make sure I’m studying for the Leaving, and then there’s you! You’ve got them all twisted round that grubby little finger of yours.’ Then I saw a look that was nothing short of desperate. No malice. He didn’t even want to pinch me. And I knew I had him.
‘Look. Just tell me how ya do it? I’ll even save up and buy you the skates ya want. JUST TELL MEEEEEEEEEE!’
‘Nope. I prefer lollypops and tuning forks and plastic things ya shove up your nose and stickers!’
He didn’t understand. He would never understand. Poor Robert. He trudged out the door with the school bag on his back ready for another tortuous day studying for the Leaving Cert. Sucker.
We were off! Myself and Mammy. And I was getting blue glasses! I could see them in my mind and they were going to be the best ever. And I was going to get a lollypop that was even bigger than the last one, and hopefully, if I smiled enough and squez out a tear I might get TWO stickers. This was the life.
Until I saw who was examining my eyes. The same nurse who tested my hearing. She slapped a patch on my left eye and screamed into my right ear ‘NOW SEE HOW MANY LETTERS YOU CAN READ ON THE CHART AT THE FAR END OF THE WALL IF YOU CAN HEAR ME!’
If I knew the word for it then, ‘sarcasm’ would have come screaming at me worse than Teacher on a Good Friday after finding ham sangers in Orla Flynn’s lunchbox. But I didn’t. I did know though that this was turning into war. And I HAD to win. I needed that Lollypop and those blue glasses, not to mention the stickers.
‘What chart? I can’t see a thing’ I feebly tried to plead with her.
Meanwhile the Dentist who was next door doing a root canal was suddenly standing behind us, including the Health Inspector who happened to be coming out of the nearest loo and everyone could hear the racket going on where we were. This was a stand off. There was Nurse Ratchett, a lousy stinking eye chart, a dentist and a Health Inspector standing between me and the Lolly and the glasses and the stickers. I came out fighting.
‘WAAAAAAAAAAAH MAAAAMMYYYYYYYYY! That…. tha… hic…huh, ku.. sniff… nurse is shu… shu…. shouting at me! I’m SOOooooorrrRRRyyYYYYY!’ Jesus. I stunned myself I was so good. I actually couldn’t stop crying, for real. I kept it up and beat her down in those two sentences. It was game set and match. The eye test went quite smoothly after that, albeit a little too quietly for comfort, but I came out with flying colours. I wasn’t quite as bad as legally blind, but I was skimming close enough to it. I figured that if I just read the first two lines and then didn’t go on, I’d get a better choice of glasses. Blue ones! Deadly!
The three of us walked into the back office where all the frames were on stands. Me and Mammy holding hands in front, Nurse Ratchett stomping and huffing behind us.
‘Now Mrs Murphy’ she quipped. I really didn’t like this woman. She was all cross and strict, but I chose to forgive her and smiled through the tears and the pain as I saw the ones I wanted.
‘I want these ones Mammy!’ God they were great. Sky blue. Round. Small. I put them on without any help and checked myself out in the mirror. They were me. I stood back to the far end of the room where I could see them from a distance. I stood nearly to the door. Even from that distance they were great. Mistake no. 1. Nurse Ratchett (I didn’t know her name, but I thought it kind of suited her, still do) was waiting like a Lion ready for the kill.
‘Majella? Can you see them from there? From all the way over there?’
Oh God I was finished.
‘Yes, I mean no! They just feel right. I em.. I… I love ’em!’ Desparation was creeping in.
‘Well…. I think that your eyesight is a little too poor for those glasses Majella’. She sauntered over to another stand that must have been sponsored by Dame Edna Everedge and picked out a pair of luminous pink yokes with wings on either side of them, yanked off my beautiful blue specs and shoved them onto my nose, pulling and pushing as if I was a calf being birthed. They were horrific. I could have cried only for the pride.
‘There! Yes. There! They’re perfect. And we’ll give you a nice thick lens to hold them in place for you’.
She marched me over to the mirror, a look of glee on her face, horror on mine and bewilderment on my Mother’s as she was totally lost in the whole saga at this stage. I stopped bawling. That was all that mattered to her.
‘And where are your hearing aids?’
I was quickly hurtling towards the first phase of PTS. ‘Wh…what?’
‘I SAID…! God Mrs Murphy we’ll have to get the poor child some new hearing AIDS right now. I’ve got some nice big ones out the back that she can’t lose again. In fact, you’d find these ones in a haystack!’
I could hear her snickering even if Mammy couldn’t and could pick out that twinkle in her eye that said ‘Gotcha!’ but I couldn’t open my mouth.
‘Can.. can I have my lollypop now please?’ I barely whispered to her.
‘Oh no dear. You’ve such great teeth we’d hate to spoil them with sugar. Tut tut. You’re faaaaaar too special for that. I’ve got just the thing for you’.
My heart dropped to the pit of my stomach when I saw what she furradged out of the fridge. A fridge that I was sure contained a number of things children should never see, including broken dentures and yellow liquid in little plastic jars.
‘A nice BIG celery stick. You can chew on that for hours and there’ll still be plenty left for later. Now Mrs Murphy, Majella will be great with all this. Sorted’.
And she turned to me with a smile very akin to one I saw on a hyena years later on National Geographic when she said, ‘And you can also do ALL your English reading and sums and homework with these lovely new pink glasses that are free to the poor, and with your new hearing aids you will always hear your Mammy when she calls you in from playing with your friends’.
For the first time in my short sheltered life, I was at a loss for words. I couldn’t say ‘but’ or ‘but’ or ‘but’ because Nurse Rathett had her right hand in my Mother’s elbow and her left planted firmly on the small of my back as she shunted the two of us out the side door. There was no point in mentioning the stickers. Even I knew when the game was lost and wasn’t going to be lumbered with a sticker that said ‘I’m a Good Little Girl/Boy/Brat’ or ‘I was nearly Brave today’. NO way.
Before we knew it both myself and Mammy were out in the sunshine. Mammy with her new umbrella, overcoat and matching handbag and me with my bright pink winged glasses, massive hearing aids that made my ears stick out like Dumbo and a celery stick hanging out of my mouth the size of a Totem Pole.
But I had to hand it to Ratchett. She won.
‘Are you all right Majell?’ Said Mammy as she kissed me.
‘Yeah.’ I would have kissed her back but with the glasses, hearing aids and celery it was scientifically impossible. So we continued down the road, across the High Street and onto the Parade hand in hand talking about nothing and everything. I couldn’t hear much with the ringing from those yokes in my ears, and I couldn’t see much with the lens from the glasses that were like milk bottles, but I could feel my Mother’s arm around me, smell her smell that I loved and I knew then that ya know? Life is grand.