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"Purpose" by Margaret Cahill

Susan wakes up in a sweat. A suffocating feeling of doom pins her to the bed. For a moment she panics and thinks she is back to those months of sticky sleeplessness when she thought she was losing her mind. She’d been terrified to find out what might be wrong with her but had no option but to go to the doctor when she forgot the PIN for her bank card, her password at work, and came within inches of crashing into a car she hadn’t even seen, all in the same week. It was a relief to discover that it was the menopause and not a brain tumour or dementia or something awful like that. She was too relieved about her diagnosis to spend any time mourning what it meant the end of. 

She’d never been one of those women who spent their lives dreaming about having children. She wasn’t really sure if she wanted them. Being on her own, it wasn’t a question she’d had to realistically face. You’d need to be with a man for a few years to get the measure of him, to know if he’d be the sort you could trust if he’d be someone you could build a future and family with and that’s not something she’d ever managed. There’d been a few boyfriends when she was younger but they’d never lasted more than a few months before she grew sick of the sight and sound of them, or they of her.  There weren’t exactly suitors queuing up at the door these days and she’d given up on internet dating ages ago after a long string of encounters with desperate divorcees, married men and headcases. She didn’t have to work hard to spot the red flags with any of them. They were practically waving them at her from the moment she met them. Now that the HRT had kicked in she’d been flying the past few months but maybe she’d gotten used to it and needed a higher dose patch. The doctor said it might need some adjusting over time. She never wants to go back to that useless brain fog stage again. It was terrifying, and mortifying. 

Susan turns over, pulls the duvet up tight to her chin and tries to go back to sleep. An image of a boy sitting alone in a dark room pops into her mind and she realises that’s what had woken her up in such a state. She’d had a horrible dream about that poor, sad hungry boy in the dirty nappy from the Barnados ad, the one she has to change the channel every time it comes on. They shouldn’t be allowed to manipulate people’s heartstrings like that for money, it’s not right. Seeing it always makes Susan think of that book of her mother’s from years ago about a woman who’d been neglected as a child. She’d read bits of it when she was in second or third class. It made her feel sick but there was something fascinatingly compelling to learn of the horror people were capable of inflicting on a child, their own child. She’d been too young to read such awful things and it had never left her. Some people don’t deserve to have children. 

The boy in her dream had been crying. He wanted Susan to help him, to rescue him, and though he was right in front of her, for some reason that only makes sense in the world of dreams, she couldn’t get to him. The feeling of helpless panic is still palpable and she doesn’t want to drift back into the dream so she drags herself out of bed to go pee and splash some cold water on her face. She should write to the advertising standards people, or whoever it is that governs those sorts of things. As she climbs back into bed she is grateful that at least it means it’s not the menopause that is haunting her tonight. 

Susan sleeps poorly for the rest of the night and is a wreck at work the next day. She does her best not to show it and to plaster a smile on her face. They all, well most of them, gave her a lot of lee-way when she went a bit loopy. She thinks they were as relieved as her that there was a reasonable explanation for her brain and personality malfunctions. They’re not a bad gang. They make an effort to go out for dinner and drinks every few months and though she invariably gets stuck with Ciara, whose sole topic of conversation is her never-ending divorce, or Keith who can only talk football, it’s the only chance she has to go out these days so she tries to make the best of it. All of her friends have teenage children now and are too busy driving them from soccer to music lessons to friend’s houses and back again so they don’t have time to go out anymore. Her sisters are much younger than them and they have their hands full with a bunch of pre-schoolers. She meets them now and then for coffee on Saturdays but she never gets the chance to finish a sentence without the young ones needing attention, food, entertainment, or refereeing. Going out and meeting people without having an actual conversation leaves Susan feeling lonelier than ever afterward. The girls have provided the grandchildren for their parents to obsess over so that leapfrogged them both past her into favourite daughters positions. Any time Susan calls her mother, the conversation always ends up on the children and which of them drew an amazing picture, scored a goal in their soccer match, or said something so cutesy and funny it has to be repeated for weeks. 

Still, things are good with Susan. Work’s going well, another year or two and she should be promoted to Team Lead. She has her Spanish classes on Tuesdays, her books, and goes to the theatre every week or two, the cinema the rare time there’s anything decent on, and her trips to The Shelbourne in Dublin or The G in Galway on her own for a treat every couple of months. She can’t complain. 

A couple of weeks later Susan calls into the supermarket on her way home on Friday evening to pick up a few bits. As she walks along the fridge section towards the milk, she passes a toddler sitting at the front of a trolley. His father is berating the little boy for reaching around to grab a packet of mini Babybel cheeses he’s just put in. As she opens the door of the fridge, Susan hears a child start to cry. “I want it,” she hears the wailing voice say. She instinctively turns to look back at the little boy in the trolley but it’s not him who is crying, though it sounds like it’s coming from that direction. There’s a high wall of special-offer toilet paper stacked next to them and she reckons there must be a child crying someone behind it and that the tower of toilet paper is throwing the sound around in some weird way. She carries on towards the freezer section to get some ice cream, glad to be escaping the grating noise.

There is a work night out planned for the following night. There are just five of them meeting up to go to the new Thai place on O’Connell Street. Between weddings, no babysitters, secondary school graduations and other plans, most people couldn’t come this time. Susan thought about making up an excuse to cancel. That small of a group could end up being awkward. There’d be no escaping someone if they got too intense or boring but it’d been ages since she’d been out with anyone other than herself so she decided to take her chances. She could always leave early and get the last bus home if she wasn’t enjoying it.

It’s quiet at the bus stop when Susan arrives a few minutes before six. There’s just a baby in a buggy there with what must be his Granny. She thinks it’s a boy. It’s hard to tell when they’re only a few months old, though its so chubby that it must be a boy. She’s checking the messages on her phone to see what pub they’re meeting in when she hears a whimper. It slowly builds and builds until it turns into the distressed cry of an upset baby that desperately needs something – food, a nappy change, burping, something. Susan looks up. The boy in the buggy is not smiling or talking but he’s not crying either. He’s just sitting there looking back at Susan. The noise doesn’t seem to be registering with his Granny at all. She’s watching for the bus while keeping an eye on the electronic notice board. “I want to go home,” Susan hears a child scream through tears yet the boy’s face is motionless. She looks around but there is no one else here, no other babies. She doesn’t know what to think but something very strange is happening and it’s starting to freak her out. She turns and begins walking back towards home. As she does, the crying fades. 

She looks back over her shoulder. The little boy is watching her, his face motionless, yet she can still hear a baby crying. Susan thinks about the crying in the supermarket the evening before. But that was different, she reasons to herself, there probably was a baby crying there that she just couldn’t see. She half runs, half walks back home so quickly that she gives herself a stitch in her side. When she gets there, she pours herself a double vodka with a splash of coke and texts Paul from work to say she missed the bus but that she’ll get a taxi in and will meet them at the restaurant. There must be a logical explanation for what happened but none come to mind no matter how she turns it over in her head. 

The drink has taken the edge off her uneasiness by the time the taxi arrives and the small talk she is forced to engage in with the driver is a distraction. The night out is okay but not great. The food is right up her street but the conversation gets stuck in a loop about their boss and whether he’s over-stating the hours on his own time sheets, if he’s going to stay with their team or more to a rival company who’re setting up outside the city next year, whether he’s qualified enough to even be the manager, and on and on it goes. Saturday night TV would have been better than this, Susan thinks, not impressed that talk of work has invaded her weekend. She downs a few more vodkas than usual to take the edge off her irritation. Her hangover the next day means she can think of nothing but lazing on the sofa, watching rubbish TV.

The next week at work is busy and Susan has to stay in late a couple of evenings to finish a report that’s due so all thoughts of strange crying babies go out of her head. It isn’t until the following Saturday, when she is out for a walk and turns into the park that it comes back to her. There are children everywhere, like there always are on weekends. A little girl of about two is coming towards her on a toy car, pushed along by her father. They pass by Susan with only the sound of their chatting hanging in the air. As she continues, she meets a mother and baby in a pram. Susan’s shoulders drop in relief when they walk by her without a sound. She tells herself off for being anxious over nothing and quickens her stride to get on with her walk, taking the path that follows the boundary of the park all the way around. She’ll get a couple of laps in before she heads back home again. 

As she rounds the next corner, Susan nearly runs into a woman who is walking with her head down, furiously typing on her phone with both thumbs. A little girl is waddling precariously behind her, trying to catch up with the woman. The toddler looks Susan straight in the eye and as she does, Susan hears it start to cry. The child looks upset but, like the boy at the bus stop, she doesn’t seem to be crying. There are no tears falling from her eyes, her mouth isn’t even open. But it has to be coming from her. There’s no one else near them and no big stack of toilet paper to form a semi-plausible explanation this time. “Mammy! Wait! I’m tired,” Susan hears the little girl call out but the sound isn’t coming from her mouth, it’s shut tight. 

Susan breaks into a jog and heads for the path that will bring her back to park gate. She has to get out of here. She passes more children on the way out, a bunch of young lads playing soccer, a baby in its mother’s arms being fed a bottle, a little boy on a practice bike with no peddles. None of them are crying, obviously or otherwise. But then she walks by a little girl of about two and a half or three whose father is trying to make her kick a ball to him and as soon as Susan lays eyes on her, she hears the girl start to cry. Like the other times, the girl’s face remains impassive while the sound of crying fills the air. “I hate football,” Susan hears her scream. “Why do you always make me play football?” Susan picks up the pace and doesn’t stop running until she’s through the gates and on the path home. She crosses the road to avoid a buggy coming towards her. 

What is going on? As she walks home, she thinks back over all the crying children, trying to make sense of it. Other people didn’t seem to hear them, or if they did, they pretended not to. But were the children even crying at all? To look at them you wouldn’t think so, their faces didn’t match the sounds she’d heard coming from them. It was like the sound was emanating from them but not from their mouths, as you’d expect, though that doesn’t make sense. As she thinks about it, she realises that the crying doesn’t usually start until she looks right at them, until their eyes meet. Are they trying to communicate with her? Are they looking for her attention or help?  Maybe she has a gift that allows only her to be aware or or to tune into their pain. She has a vague memory of a cousin on her mother’s side being the seventh-son of a seventh-son but he only ever had the cure for shingles and warts, and he wasn’t even that good at it, as far as she remembers. 

Susan thinks over it all afternoon as she tried to catch up on housework. Maybe she should stop running from whatever this is, stop getting so freaked out by these children. They’re only babies, she tries to convince herself. They aren’t trying to scare me. Could she be more open to them, to let in whatever they are trying to say to her? The prospect scares her but she has a niggling feeling that she’s been somehow called to do it, that they’ve chosen her for a reason. It would be cruel to ignore that. 

Susan can’t help but notice children and babies all the time now. Everywhere she goes she sees children being ignored, not listened to and not having their basic needs met. They are in McDonald’s and cafes at lunchtime, in the library, in the queue for the cinema, in shops, on the street, everywhere. Their lips don’t need to move. She can hear their endless cries in her head.  “I’m hungry.” “I have a pain in my tummy.” “I want Mommy.” “Let me down.” “Get me out.” “I don’t want to.” “Give me milk.” 

She tries to connect with those that signal they are in distress, to meet their gaze with concern, willing them to see in her eyes that she cares, that she understands, that she’s sorry they are hurting. Sometimes it works and the crying subsides. Sometimes it’s not enough. Susan stops being afraid of whatever this is that is happening to her, and takes comfort in the fact that she can soothe the pain of some of them. The cacophony of the troubled souls and the emotional energy she has to expend to reach them becomes exhausting. She doesn’t have the mental capacity for watching TV or reading when she gets home and usually falls asleep listening to Classic FM, contented by the work she has done.

She stops caring about her actual job so much. She does what she has to and makes a point of leaving on time every day. If Paul wants to lick up to the boss by doing overtime and volunteering to take on new projects, he can have the Team Lead position when it comes up. Susan realises that she doesn’t care about it as much as she thought she did. She skips a work night out at the bowling alley, then a musical they all go to. She hasn’t seen any of them outside the office or her sisters in a while. It doesn’t bother her. She’s afraid they’d notice something is up with her and there’s no way she could explain any of this to anyone. Beside, it feels like it should be just their thing, hers and the children’s. 

There is a boy in a buggy in the riverside park Susan always passes through on her way from the cheap pay-per-week car park to the office.  It’s ridiculous to even call it a park since it’s mostly concrete and the few narrow strips of grass there are are covered in dog shit. At first, he is only there the odd time. Now he’s there every morning on her way to work and every evening on the way back. He must be a year, or a year and a half at most. His mother looks like she’s been pushed to her limits. The sagging black bags under her eyes make her face seem even paler than it probably is. Her hair is stuck to her head and looks like it hasn’t been washed in weeks, and her grey tracksuit is pock-marked with stains. The way the boy looks at Susan haunts her. His eyes tell of his pain, of long hours spent on the streets, of the bottles of milk that no longer fill his growing belly, of the shouting and fighting and drinking when they do go home. He never cries though, not like the others. He seems too defeated to, too tired to. She knows she should do something to help him. Who would she ring and what would she say? Without a name or address to visit nobody would do anything anyway. Social workers are all overworked. It’s always on the news. They can’t keep track of their enormous case loads as it is and hundreds of children stuck in horrendous situations are falling through the cracks every day.

That night, she dreams about the boy. He is in her house, crying. The sound haunts her she runs from room to room trying to find him. His cries grows louder and louder, the intensity of it panicking her. When she reaches the kitchen she sees he is outside, sitting in the back yard in the cold with just a nappy on, a dirty nappy, like the boy from the Barnardos ad. She runs to the back door but it won’t open. He is hysterical now, crying for her but no matter how hard she tugs at the back door, it won’t budge. Tears are streaming down her face now too. She is letting him down. 

Susan wakes in a panic with the most awful feeling of guilt she can’t shake for the rest of the night and into the morning. She listens to podcasts until dawn sends a pale light through her curtains, then gets up and goes to work an hour earlier than usual. She avoids the park by the river on the way there, taking the longer route through the shopping streets, but the boy is on her mind all day. Autopilot brings her on her usual, well-worn route on the way home, though she hadn’t meant to come by the park. When she gets there, he is sitting on his own in his buggy his eyes pleading with her to help him. His mother is off over on the other side of the park, getting a light from some men drinking cans on a bench. The woman’s back is to the boy, oblivious to any danger he could be in. Without thinking, Susan grabs his buggy and runs as fast as she can back in the direction she’d come from. She doesn’t dare look back until they’re out the gate and hidden from view by the dense hedge that borders the park. She finds a gap she can peek through and is disgusted to see that his mother hasn’t even turned around yet and is oblivious to the fact that her son is missing. 

Susan bends down to look at the boy and make sure he is okay. 

“Take me out of here, leave the buggy,” he silently says to her. “I can’t stand another minute trapped in this thing.”

She does as she is told. She has no car seat so she leaves her car where it is and runs to the bus stop two streets over instead, looking over her shoulder the whole way to make sure they aren’t being followed. There is a bus just about to pull off when they get there. 

“Thank you,” he says to her as the doors close behind them.

Susan has no idea what she is going to do, how she will explain the fact that she suddenly has a child, where he will sleep, who will mind him while she goes to work but all worry about these practicalities disappear from her head when he says, “Let’s go home, Susan.” 

A quiet peacefulness floods through her. She will look after him. This is what all those other children were leading her towards. This is her purpose. It’s what she is supposed to do with her life. She has never felt so sure of anything before. 

Margaret Cahill is a short story writer from Limerick, Ireland. Her fiction has been featured in The Milk House, époque press é-zine, Ogham Stone, Honest Ulsterman, HeadStuff, Silver Apples, Autonomy anthology, Incubator, Crannog, Galway Review, Limerick Magazine, Boyne Berries and The Linnet’s Wings. She also dabbles in writing about music and art, with publications on and in Circa Arts Magazine.


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