By Uinsin Ó Dunabháin
Mr Patrick O’Grady, chief clerk at the County Council offices, was an extraordinary sort of man. He always arrived in time for work, greeted his secretary with a handshake and sometimes wrote articles for the local newspapers. The visitors in his waiting room began arriving to see him in the morning. Some came on important matters while others came about extra little pieces of land or using his influence with the local T.D. to get a son or daughter, who had run foul of the law, out of trouble.
Mr O’Grady’s way of working was to meet everybody, shake their hands amiable and attend personally to the matters troubling them, because he himself hoped to be a county councillor some day. His office was indeed marked by the simple cunning of the man himself. At the far end was a wide desk with a small tricolour and in front of it were two leather armchairs. On the right was a long conference table covered with a green cloth and lined on either side with more leather chairs. Mr O’Grady hated to see anyone sitting at this table and whenever he saw any of these chairs moved, he always pushed it back into place so they were all in a straight line at all times.
Life in the waiting room was taking its normal course, the secretary was typing away at her pieces, the visitors were patiently awaiting and the taped music played a sentimental waltz. At ten o’clock there came a brief ring. The nimble secretary disappeared for a moment and then came back and said “Miss O’Neill, this way please.” The young girl entered the office. She was heavily made up and wore a brief mini-skirt.
O’Grady was writing slowly, his head to one side as was his custom. “Please take a seat,” he said quietly without bothering to raise his eyes. The girl sat down on the edge of the cold chair without taking her eyes off Mr O’Grady who had the nice plump face of a non-smoker and snow-white hair. “Yes, what can I do for you,” he asked, continuing to write. The young girl gave a slight cough and began the sentence she had prepared and polished in her mind for a week.
“My name is Maureen O’Neill and I came here a week ago looking for a job. You took my particulars and told me to come back today.” Mr O’Grady kept writing. “Yes,” he said, absentmindedly. He found it hard to shift his attention for before him was a complaint about a deficiency in a recently constructed bridge. It must have gone to headquarters and from there to the chief engineer. He had orders to deal with the hitch straight away and have it seen to by a certain date and the date had expired yesterday.
“Yes, what can I do for you?”
“My name is Maureen O’Neill,” continued the persistent girl, “and I’ve come about a job.”
“You’ll have to go to the personnel department and fill in an application form. What’s your name?”
Rummaging around in the bottom drawer of his desk Mr O’Grady brought out a file marked “Personnel”. Maureen’s papers were indeed with him. The papers stated that Maureen O”Neill was female, of working class origin, entered university in 1965 and had graduated with honours in commerce.
The handwriting had a backhanded peculiarity with short curved tails at the end of the “d”s so Mr O’Grady recalled having seen the application form. He also now recalled the timid embarrassed face of the girl when she first came in and he now remembered the unpleasant story involved. Tearing himself away from his papers he looked up. Her face was heavily made up and her eyebrows painted. This had the effect of having an unfavourable impression on him and he cursed the stupidity of the people in the personnel department. After all, she did have an illegitimate child and that was the reason why her papers made their way from there to Mr O’Grady’s office desk. And that was the reason why he had asked her to come back in a week.
She had worked as office manageress for a big American firm in Dublin but had left, as was stated on the form, “for family reasons”. O’Grady decided to phone the Americans and if they didn’t recommend her O’Grady could turn her down without a conscience. The American took the matter lightly, too lightly for Mr O’Grady.
Yes, she was an honest, highly skilled worker and he expressed his willingness to give her a reference without the slightest ado.
“But don’t you think she is a bit timid and kind of slow like?”
The American didn’t think so at all.
“But what about her private life?” – what about it? It was no concern of the firm’s. As far as he understood she got involved with a man who had a wife and children in the country, without her knowing it, and as far as the American understood she did have a baby.
“But she hasn’t had a job now for six months.”
The American didn’t know that.
“There you are, said O’Grady, “one has got to know ones employed.”
“Go on buddy,” urged the American, “take her and you won’t regret it.”
But it was easy for the Yank to talk – O’Grady had to live in the town, there could be repercussions. There were young girls on his staff who could be corrupted and what of his brother, the parish priest in the country. What might he think?
A week later the girl was in the office again. She lived in a room at number 10 Castle Street, she told him, and kept the baby with her.
“It’s because of the baby that I live here at all. It is impossible to get a room in Dublin when a girl has a baby. Otherwise, I would have stayed in the city. You know how difficult it is.”
When she came back a week later she was in a state of great agitation and kept crumpling a little white handkerchief in her hand.
“Nothing yet – not for the moment anyhow.”
“But there was a list of vacancies posted on the wall as I came in. You’re telling lies. You must have had some vacancies all the time. You’re telling lies.”
O’Grady did not become annoyed or begin to argue or shout. He merely stood up and said with restraint “Miss O’Neill, please.” She suddenly turned away, covered her face with her hands and rushed out leaving both doors open.
She did not come again and O’Grady gradually forgot all about her.
But one day, while setting his desk in order, he came across the application form and the “d”s with the funny tails.
What has happened to her? Where was she now? Maybe she got a job somewhere. Maybe she had gone back to Dublin though that was unlikely, because all her papers and references were here. Maybe she had thrown herself in the river.
O’Grady began to suffer from nerves and bit the nail of his thumb like when he was expecting the chief engineer.
But the Local Elections came and went. They never even considered him for nomination so when the rates took a leap skywards once again, he didn’t feel at all sorry for them. When men of property complained, he sucked through the space between his bad teeth and said to himself “serves them right”.
The peasants and the poor people talked about the conditions in the Mental Asylum and the County Home. The by-roads, they said, were going to the dogs and men stood in knot s leaning on their shovels in the country or sitting on their hunkers keeping company with the man in the hole under the street in the town. Things disappeared and were mysteriously mislaid but girls preferred to get rid of the details rather than go to the bother of rooting through bundles of files. Scandalous! Mr O’Grady agreed as he sat around tidying his little bits of paper.
“Scandalous! Someone should have looked into things.”
Maureen O’Neill had a tin of polish with a smell that followed you around. She had cloths and brushes and a bucket with soapy water and off-white suds. She kept the marley and the terazzo of the offices of the chief engineer spotlessly clean. She kept the little room at 10 Castle Street spotlessly clean too. There was a single divan with a red candlewick bedspread. She had a lampshade and curtains to match. Her baby was getting bigger and beginning to walk. She would be very sad to see him growing up and she hated to think of the day when he would have to go out to school, especially in the cold of the dark winter’s morning.