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Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan

Ruth Gilligan
Atlantic Books
Picture of Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan


From the Prologue

In the bloodless light of the foyer she feels herself nothing but a stranger.

The all-smiles nurse leads her through. Visitors' Book. Auto­graph please. A set of coded doors and then a waft of luncheon smells, almost solid on the air. Cream of mushroom soup.

The first room is laid out with tables and chairs, the aftermath of last night's Festive Bingo. Old games for old folks, two little ducks. She surveys, clutching her parcel to her chest; spots a left­over scorecard that has fallen to the floor. But she admits there is a polish to the place she hadn't been expecting, a vase of lilies on the sideboard and the surfaces wiped so clean you could almost see your face in them, even if after three days without sleep she would probably just prefer to look away.

In the next room, a parliament of armchairs curves around a tele­vision - a Father Ted rerun - the volume turned all the way down to mute. Only, she can just make out a hum of classical music playing somewhere near, which turns the priests into a sort of silent film, a farce of dog collars and fags and mouths mouthing go on, Father, you will you will you will.

The television's audience, though, won't resist the distraction; a ripple of heads for the arrival; wrinkled necks strained tight, young again. And eyes that cannot seem to place her - is she somebody's granddaughter? A niece? Whose turn is it for a visitor anyway? Usu­ally Sammy Harris is the safest bet, more relatives than marbles left in him these days. Or even Betty O'Meara - an age since she has had one - not after her brood decided to emigrate to Canada, something to do with these 'recessionary times', a second chance buried underneath the snow.

The imposter herself only has eyes for the floor. Still she hugs her parcel as she follows the nurse out towards the conservatory where another scatter of them sit, framed in the frail light.

Until, tucked up in the corner, they find him.

He wears a tatty shirt. A tie. A little hat, poised atop his head. It is a Jewish hat, apparently, though the symbolism is overshadowed by the other men's jealousy - covers his bald patch nicely, so it does. He sits unmoving, staring out at the back garden where a cluster of pigeons takes lumps out of the mangy ground.

Two little ducks, lucky for some.

But the onlookers now are too curious for the birds, because this here is a revelation - the first visitor the old man has ever received -in here for years, like, and not a single one! Of course, they all have their theories about him, half-baked stuff whispered round. Even the staff, sneaking into the Records Room for a go of his file to see what family, if any, he has left; what his story could possibly be. The folder, though, doesn't say a word. Totally empty. The most vigilant Home for the Elderly in all of Dublin, yet somehow he has slipped through the cracks.

The nurse leaves the unlikely pair to it, still-lifed in silence. The classical music changes track. The girl looks exhausted.