The bed stretched out in front of her, its narrow length encased in white bars at either end, quite different to her big bed at home. The room was wide with high windows that allowed in the first faint streaks of early summer dawn. There were many other beds and other bodies. What am I doing here in this strange place? Sheila thought. I'm just twenty-one and yet I feel as old and worn out as the old women filling the room with their awful snoring and mumblings throughout the long night. It was her first time in hospital, in a very old building that had seen better days. The ward had a forbidding, closed-down atmosphere, like a place where no one wanted to be. The walls were painted a dull white and there were streaks of grey, insect webs in corners that no one bothered to dust. The dark wooden floor was the type that doesn’t clean properly anymore.
Sheila moved carefully in the bed, her lower back in pain and other unfamiliar sensations she wasn't accustomed to. Normally strong and healthy, she was uncomfortable with people exhibiting any kind of weakness. She craned her neck to get a better view of the other occupants. A small groan came unbidden out of her mouth, caused by a sharp pain in the kidney area. The old fears of being weak and helpless resurfaced. There was no noise coming from anyone else. They were all still asleep. And in the corner bed, diagonal to her, was an open mouth, curved in the rictus of death. She looked over at the body for a full ten minutes wondering how it felt to die in here, away from family and familiar surroundings. She jolted in panic and another thought flitted across her mind.
I know that I don’t want this to be my fate. Just yesterday I was celebrating the beginning of my adult life!
She couldn't shake the feeling that she had been here before, in this hospital room. She knew this almost as soon as she woke up. She remembered coming here yesterday evening in the ambulance, having collapsed at the camp site, and was put to bed immediately under observation. It was such a quick transition from the carefree feeling of being on holiday with her family beside a beautiful lake. They had all been watching a comedy movie in the camp center and Sheila had laughed very hard at a couple of jokes and then collapsed unconscious as pain engulfed her. All night long the nurses had come to check on her and asked silly questions. ‘Are you alright, Dearie?’ How did she know the answer to that? All night she flitted between her world here and the other one, calling her from somewhere in the past.
That world from another time filled her being as she lay in the strange bed. It was like being between two lives, not just between her normally athletic and fit life and being felled by an acute kidney infection and ending up in this strange hospital deep in the countryside, but another life altogether, unfolding moment by moment. As she sat up in the bed, looking over at the sleeping bodies of strangers, an unfamiliar smell of dirty bodies that had nothing to do with this hospital ward lodged deep in the root of her nose.
She also became conscious of a different pain, the pain of an always-empty stomach, rain-sodden clothes, chapped legs with blisters from cold. Ire they called it. Now the image of mud everywhere, spattering the walls, cloaking everything as they walked the roads in broken-down shoes without proper heels washed across her mind in rivulets of anguish.
In the hospital bed, in her voluminous hospital gown, Sheila’s body memory was back in the too-small ripped clothing that was always too short to cover her body except at the time of the annual pass-down from her older sister. In this life, she didn't have an older sister, and she certainly never had to wear hand-me-downs. The musty smell of the second-hand clothing permeated her being and brought her into another consciousness. In that other life, there was always so little time between the sleeves hanging below the wrists and the bottom of the jumper dragging around the knees and the sleeves only reaching just past the elbow, the end of the garment so high around her middle it was almost comical. She hated the gradual tightening and shortening and then the inevitable insults from the other children.
‘Can’t yer mammy buy ye a jumper that fits ye?’
The echoes of that shame now overcame her in this sterile ward. She remembered it accompanying all the days of schooling in that other life. She remembered too, those too few years of being in the dry inside, on her own part of the school bench with two or three other small bodies, being invited to partake of the gift of learning, and the shiver up the spine at the anticipation of answering the question correctly, the chance to shine. At those moments, the ragged clothes and the skinny dirty frame were left behind in the overwhelming desire to be best in the class, not every time, but enough times to experience the thrill of being recognized. To not just be the poor, snot-ridden child with dirty limbs from the hopeless family at the end of the lanes, with the alcoholic father and the mother with a baby every year, but the one with a brain that mattered.
That old feeling came over her again with an image of old-fashioned dark leather-bound books – precious books that could be borrowed and were returned with reverence – and extra projects given by the caring teacher with whispered instructions to 'do your best'. She could feel again the delight of stories being devoured and characters coming to life even in the poor candlelight in the corner of the one room shared by all. As clearly as her fingers on the white counterpane, she could see again the younger ones wrapped up for the night in scraps of blankets and coats on the straw flooring, stomachs only half full of the gruel composed of begged meat scraps and scrawny mouldering vegetables. The sad faces of their parents on the quiet nights of peace, without wrangling, talking softly about better days in the past. Then back to tales of knights in armour, ladies in beautiful gardens and always some rescue at the last minute. That’s what she yearned for, the rescue in time.
It didn’t happen. The meagre wages from odd jobs, building roads and the odd Famine folly from the people in the Big House disappeared on her father’s death. He fell down a well after a night’s drinking and the parish looked after the family for a month. Then it was into the Workhouse. The long walk up the hill to the big, grey, forbidding building, was the longest of her life, the faces of pity from onlookers interwoven with the snide remarks behind unkind hands covering sneering mouths. Her mother crying bitter tears at being separated from the older ones and her brothers who were sent to the men’s section. From then on, there was no school, just laundry work for the rich. She felt her soul shut down. The door to her future was locked and she had no key.
Sheila realized all this as she slowly woke up from this other world and saw this dead woman opposite her. Her body was shrivelled, not just from the cancer, but from the destitution that accompanied her life, written into every fold on her face and on her worn-out hands. In the sleeping ward, she was the sole witness to Sheila’s awakening, her spirit hovering over the bed and telling her, ‘We are not so far apart, you and I. You with your fancy clothes now, but you have been here before. You were my sister here. You know this pain, the hell we went through. I’ve died in here again but I still had me dignity intact. Others lose it before they leave in the shroud outa here.’
Her voice drifted a little then came back stronger in Sheila’s head.
'You’ll get out of here but you will never be the same again. You will take this memory of the past and how the workhouse used to be. You will take the imprint of the other life into this one. You will find a way of giving these old workhouses a whole new purpose, not a place of dying in a ward for scrapheap people like me. You will find a way to reframe these buildings of pain and despair into places of joy and hope.
'Now go eat your breakfast and get strong again. Take your frail kidneys and the fear that flies in them and make them strong. Strong enough to live a full, rich life of opportunity that you never dreamed of before.’
Years later, Sheila was part of the process of transforming a former workhouse in a city in another part of the country into a refuge for women suffering from domestic violence. A place of joy and hope and the rescuing of many young lives that came just in time.