Clean sheets

By

Mammy was fed up of washing the piss out of Hugh’s bedsheets and had threatened to send him to Da for a hiding if he wet the bed again. Right as the sun came up over Crosshaven in September on a chilly Saturday morning, Michael felt a prodding on his lower back. It was gentle at first, then more urgent.

“Michael.” Hugh whispered. “Michael.”

Anger – the special kind that you get after just waking up – bubbled in Michael’s chest. He could have easily rolled over and smacked Hugh quiet like an alarm clock. Instead Michael groaned and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. 

“What?” Michael already knew what Hugh was going to say; he had gotten to know the smell.

“I wet the bed.”

“Again?”

“Sorry…” He sniffled. Michael closed his eyes. Mammy would say he hadn’t been a good enough big brother. Like it was his fault Hugh was a bed-wetter. Hugh poked Michael again. The anger boiled again. He groaned again. “Mammy’s going to visit Auntie Sheila today. I can sort it out before she gets back.”

Michael helped Hugh out of his soiled pyjamas, cringing at the smell and wondering how he was going to clean the piss-soaked sheets without Mammy noticing. Michael realised then that he hadn’t a notion how she did it. On certain days of the month Michael would get up and go to school or a piano lesson or to the park with his friends and when he got home in the evening his dinner would be on the table, his uniform pressed and his sheets smelling of summer. Michael felt quite the genius then when he remembered the white building next to St. Vincent’s secondary, and its similar aroma of freshly washed linens.

Michael would be starting at St. Vincent’s that year. He was very nervous about going to big school because he had heard stories that the older students would stick the first year’s heads down the toilets and flush. When Da found Michael in the bathroom trying to put his own head down the toilet bowl to practice he decided to take him to see the school for himself so he wouldn’t be scared anymore.

It did not work. The two of them stood outside the school and still all Michael could think of were the O-Level boys who flushed heads down toilets. Da patted Michael on the shoulder, “There you are, son. S’just a pile of bricks. I went here when I was eleven and had a brilliant time. You’re twelve, aren’t you? A big lad now. You’ll be grand.” When he was eleven, Da stood at 5’10 and played GAA like a bloodhound. Michael was barely 5’5 at the age of twelve and he played musical instruments for fun. 

Michael swallowed hard and – desperate to look away from the tall grey evil building – turned to a long white house right beside the school. It looked like any ordinary house in Crosshaven, only with a tall metal fence and small windows that had been blacked out.

“Who lives there?” Michael asked, pointing to the house.

Da, brought out of the memory of his school days, turned to look at the house, then back at Michael, then back at the house. He scratched his chin. “That’s where the bad girls go, Michael.”

“Who?”

“It’s a place where… where the nuns teach girls to be good. Good like Mammy and Auntie Sheila. They clean clothes and sheets and things. Like Mammy does in the kitchen. Only bigger.” He scratched his chin again. “Don’t be telling her I told you that.”


All the nuns Michael knew were gaunt, leathery, mean hags who would tell the priest if they caught you eating sweets during Lent or send you to be whipped if you didn’t bring in money for starving African babies. Even Da was afraid of them. Michael remembered Aine Kelly, a girl in his primary school class. Mammy still had Hugh in her belly, Da had more hair, Michael was getting ready with his year group to take part in the Nativity play. Aine was so excited to be one of the angels and had fashioned her own halo out of tin foil and Sellotape to wear during school. Mammy had made Michael befriend Aine, holding out her dish-scrubber like a rapier.

“The poor girl has had a rough time of it, Michael, God love her. Mrs Declan across the road has told her wee’un not to play with her at breaktime. Mrs O’Keefe as well.”

“Mrs Declan. Aye, she was the one that told me off in O’Hara’s for buying shoe polish on a Sunday.” Mumbled Da from across the room, reading the paper on the chair by the fire. “Ould’ bitch.”

“Colm!” Ma hissed, whipping her head around to Da, but Michael could see her stifling a laugh when he shrugged at her. She sighed and turned back to Michael. “Don’t be repeating that, Michael, but your Da is right. Poor Aine will be having enough trouble in that school. You will go and play with her in the playground or you won’t be getting any dessert. Is that clear?” 

Michael didn’t know why he had to be the one to be friends with Aine. Come to think of it he didn’t know why she had trouble making friends at all. Mammy never explained fully what her issue was. Michael thought it was because Aine was ginger but apparently it was something about Aine’s mother not being married. 

He remembered when Sister Hildegarde, the oldest and scariest of the nuns who oversaw St. Aquinas Primary School, found out that Michael’s teacher had made Aine one of the angels. When they came into class that day, Sister Hildegarde was there standing in front of the blackboard instead of Michael’s teacher. Normally the children would talk and throw things and eat the leftovers of their breakfast as they came into class, but this time they were all quiet, including Michael. Sister Hildegarde stayed quiet too, standing with her hands behind her back and waiting for everyone to sit down. Palms rested on the tabletops and eyes worked tirelessly to avoid looking directly at Sister Hildegarde.

“Aine Kelly.” She croaked, and the silence somehow got quieter, weighing down on the students like the gravity of another planet. “Come up to the front of the class.” Her voice was like barbed wire – thin, sharp, shrill – and she slouched under the weight of her habit as if it were a crown. The silence was broken by the sound of Aine’s tin foil halo trembling above her head as she got up and came to the front of the class. Sister Hildegarde was faster than an owl snatching up a rat when she grabbed Aine’s halo and ripped it off her head. 

“Not. For. You.” She snarled, holding the halo crumpled in her fist like the prize carcass of a deer. Aine was crying. Sister Hildegarde held on to the back of Aine’s blouse with one liver-spotted talon and turned to face the rest of the class. “We do not insult God in this manner, boys and girls! We are not blasphemers!” Then, pulling Aine behind her, Sister Hildegarde swept out of the class, disappearing as a shadow does when the sun hides behind a cloud. Michael’s teacher came in, looking herself like she had been crying.

Aine Kelly played a bale of hay in the Nativity two weeks later. An angel costume lay in the store cupboard, still in its plastic packaging. 


Knowing what Michael knew about nuns, he felt very brave and very big when he decided to cycle all the way to St. Vincent’s Secondary and go through the back garden gate into the white nun house to get clean sheets for Hugh. Michael would be protecting Hugh from a lashing and, more importantly, himself from catching the blame for his brother’s bed-wetting habit. Mammy, who had complained that Hugh’s sheets had permanently changed colour, wouldn’t know the difference. 

The world hadn’t woken up yet by the time Michael got to the white house. Clouds caked the sky and the sun had barely risen. Michael had never behaved this badly in his life. He was a big brother, though. Big brothers lock little brothers in sheds and give them wedgies and steal their pudding, but they can also be heroes. Besides, it would be good for Hugh to learn how favours worked. What was the word? Reciprocity.

Michael, still fearful, avoided the school and went around the back, ducking the entire time. The brick wall that surrounded the school was attached to a metal gate that surrounded a sparse, weed-riddled garden behind the white house. The windows were grey and clouded. One of them was open just a slant, but Michael was too far away to see anything. He swore he could see something moving inside. The warm smell of flowers and clean sheets was strong, though. Michael paused at the gate. It wasn’t even padlocked, he could open it and slip inside with no issue.

Michael suddenly felt very silly. It was a stupid idea. He had been called ‘sensible’ all his life, what on Earth was he doing here? All it would take was one habit-wearing postulant to discover him and he would be finished. Word would spread that his mother had a thief for a son. The Christian brothers who ran St. Vincent’s would grade his exams lower on purpose. Da would lose clients. Michael would be bog fodder. Michael didn’t want to discover where the ‘bad boys’ went. He imagined it would be much worse than the bad girls who only had to clean linens.

Righteous fury rose within Michael once more. Shouldn’t Hugh learn the tough way that he was too old to piss the bed? Why should Michael get a hiding to cover up for that wee melter? Michael had lived six years without any older brothers to keep him out of trouble, couldn’t Hugh manage by himself? Michael pursed his lips and was about to turn away and head straight home when he heard a noise. Footsteps on the gravel. With a speed he didn’t know he possessed (prestissimo, as his piano teacher would say), 5’5”, delicately built Michael slipped right through the bars of the gate and sprinted for the window. The footsteps were getting louder. Or was that the heartbeat in his ears? He didn’t stop to find out. With sweaty palms, he pushed the window open and clambered monkey-like into the place the bad girls go. 

Image Credit: Abandoned House next to the River Severn by Jeff Gogarty via Wikimedia Commons

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