They say we are made mostly of water, but I am made mostly of air.
At work, they call me The Shadow, because I’m built like a narrow doorway and glide noiselessly on the red rubber floors. My world is populated by the ghosts of my past; most prominently the spectre of my sister, Grace.
On the geriatric rehabilitation ward, I check cannulas, pass out painkillers, hold hands and heave bedpans. I gently guide my patients through basic motions and write up their treatment plans. I gravitate towards the elderly; they have stories to tell and I like to listen.
The ward is still with sleeping patients and the rhythmic beeps of their monitored heartbeats. Mr Jones was transferred to here today. He fell when he was on the toilet and cracked his pelvis. I softly explain the contents of the cup of pills I pass to him. He waves them away, and it takes some coaxing to get him to take them. He’s lonely, I sense. He wants someone to sit and listen to him recount the stories of his life. I settle in the visitor’s chair and offer my attention.
“What’s your name, nurse?”
I’m lying, but it’s an old lie now, so it slips out naturally. Mr Jones doesn’t care; he wants to talk about his career as a detective.
“We cracked cases just by appealing to their vanity. People like to talk,” he assures me. “Remember what they said during the war. ‘Loose lips sink ships.’”
I listen until the detective's bald head tips forward inch by inch. He soon drifts off, and when he’s snoring gently, I adjust his bedsheets and leave him, telling the nurse at the station that I’m going on my break.
In the fluorescent canteen, May, my daughter, squints at me through her thick glasses. A nurse in A&E, she’s rosy and twitchy and has a habit of calling patients “petal”. May schedules her day so that our breaks coincide, though I know she’d prefer to gossip with her friends. If not for her, I would eat alone.
I peck her on the cheek as I sit next to her. I inquire about her puppy Baxter and her boyfriend, fat Mark the mechanic. She’s digging her plastic fork into a lasagne while I move my spoon in circles around the lumps in my raspberry yoghurt. Her face is pinker than my yoghurt and she hesitates before answering my questions. I put down my spoon.
“Oh, sure… Mum, I was meaning to ask you.” She’s bending the prongs of her fork. If she’s not careful, there will soon be shards of plastic in her food. “For my birthday... I really want to see your parents' graves.”
“I know it’s weird, but it would mean a lot to me to know more about where your family - our family - comes from.”
I pick up my spoon again and draw figure eights in my food. “I’ll think about it.”
Silence. My spoon moves faster.
“Do you promise?”
“I’ll think about it.”
I won’t. There's nothing to think about.
May lets the subject drop. This isn’t the first conversation in which May had tried to sneak in a question about the past. One that sinks with my sudden unresponsiveness.
May tries the subject of her birthday party, but it's too hard to listen now, so I bin my yoghurt and walk away. May calls after me, apologising, even though she’s done nothing wrong. It's always been a slightly irritating quality of hers; it's as if she feels compelled to apologise for her existence. I go outside and light a cigarette.
My parents’ graves. With a short, bitter laugh, I slump down the cold concrete wall. They’re not in their graves yet, though May doesn’t know that. She’s long been fed the story that we have no family, that they died when I was a teenager. She doesn’t know about my missing sister Grace. I’m not a bad liar, but it takes time and effort to maintain a lie, and when you’ve got so many to keep straight, you learn to keep them short and palatable.
I glance at my watch; still thirty minutes left on my break. I take out my phone and search Grace’s details, just to see her face again. It’s been decades of searching with no answers. I don’t blame her for leaving. I just wish she'd tell me she's OK.
I draw a long inhale of my cigarette and my mind wanders to the past. Grace and I were close. She was only a couple of years older than me and inspired me to follow her into nursing. She got pregnant at twenty-one, and rather than risk scandal in our small seaside town, my parents packed her away to a home for unmarried mothers. She was confined there for months. She had her baby, and they took it off her and sent it away. When she came home, she was never the same again.
She didn’t go back to work. She stayed in bed, looking out the window with sad blue eyes, for nearly a year. When I tried to talk to her, she wouldn’t respond. She wouldn’t eat, so I fed her small spoonfuls of soup. I brushed and plaited her long hair and told her stories about when we were young.
After so many months of encouragement, it seemed she was getting better. One May morning, when I was pulling my hair into a bun for work, she gave me a hug from behind and told me she loved me. I should have known something was wrong. But I went to work, and when I came home, she was gone.
When we realised she had taken her things and gone, I tore through the house, looking for a note. I was adamant she wouldn’t have left me behind. But she had.
Like a shadow severed from its body, I stewed in that suffocating house for another year, and then I flitted away, abandoning Ireland for the UK. That is the beauty of training as a nurse. We're undervalued, but never out of work.
I arrived in a city near the sea, because the local hospital was hiring. I changed my name and rented a room from an old lady who was looking for a lodger for her flat. I spun a story that my husband had died in a fishing accident, though I’m not sure how much Mrs Greene believed. But she took pity on me and let me stay. She looked after May during the day so that I could keep working. Poor Mrs Greene is long dead now, but she truly was an angel, because in her will she left me her flat, and I've lived here ever since.
I touch base with my parents once a year, but I tell them nothing about my life. May doesn’t know that they’re alive, and they don’t know I have a daughter. I tell myself it's easier that way.
Working takes my mind off the past. I like the night shift best. After so many years of living in the shadows, it’s easier to remember who I’m trying to be in the dark. During the day, I’m always looking around, waiting for the past to tap me on the shoulder and announce that I have lost the race and that the game is over.
May comes out into the cold night air. She’s shaking and her eyebrows are creased upwards. I pull her in for a hug. “I’m sorry I pushed you, Mum. I won’t do it again. Let’s do something else for my birthday instead.”
“What would you like?”
“What would you like?” she insists.
“What’s Mark’s plan?”
“He wants to spend the day at the beach.”
Mark loves getting into his too-tight trunks and showing off his pasty beer belly, shouting at the little children running on the sand. He’ll bring a cooler of beers that he’ll drink and then May will have to drive him home, because that’s the sort of person she is.
“You should come too.”
I'd rather not. But it's a compromise.
“OK. If that’s what you want.”
“Great,” May beams at me. She glances at her watch, gives me a quick kiss and hurries back to A&E.
As I watch her walk away, I think, how is it that she loves and trusts me so implicitly? She reminds me so much of Grace. I wish she could have known her, as I did. There’s a poem called the Stolen Child by W B Yeats which strikes me from time to time:
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.
I sigh and hug my spindly arms around my ribs, remembering.
A young woman in dark clothes, a hat and sunglasses is pacing the sand. She has just worked her last night shift and handed in her notice. She hasn’t slept in 36 hours. A little girl, two years old, in a red polka-dot swimsuit, is scrunching sand between her fingers. The woman beside her lies supine in a deckchair, asleep, her head under her hat. The young woman approaches the child stealthily, with an outstretched hand. The child looks up at her, and then takes it willingly, and the two simply walk away, with nobody noticing them. Many minutes later, the sleeping woman wakes with a start. She casts about her, searching for her child, and then screams. She shrieks that her baby has wandered out to the ocean. The search comes up empty, but there is no other explanation offered. Someone says they saw a little girl in a red swimsuit wander out into the waves. It is decided that she drowned. Case closed.
I had known a friend of a friend whose mother had a sister who worked in the home where a pregnant Grace was secretly stowed away. The chain was tangled, but I slowly unpicked the secrets I pried from those loose lips.
The devil works hard, but I work harder. Nursing is my method of repenting for my sins. I am saying to the world; I’m sorry I stole the child, but she should never have been given away in the first place. Saying to the woman who adopted her; I’m sorry you’re hurting, but she wasn’t yours to take. She belonged to someone else. She was Grace’s, always Grace’s. I’m just holding her for the moment, waiting to give her back.
I want to say to Grace “look what I’ve done for you. Look at the risks I've taken.” But Grace doesn’t know, because three decades have passed and she has never returned. I don’t know if she’s still alive. I go to our home, to our sleepy seaside town, every year to look for her. Every year, I hope that she will leave a message for me. But every year, my spirits are broken and I return to May empty-handed.
My break is over. The ward is calling me back to its dark, quiet corridors. I inhale the last of my sweet nicotine and stamp out my cigarette on the concrete path. I look up, looking for some trace of Grace’s spirit. The navy sky is a haze of light pollution. I can’t see the stars.