Muiread O’Hanlon

Níl sí anseo

I wonder do you remember pulling my skirt up, pulling my pants down, lying me across your knees, your hand slapping my bare skin, warming it, resting on it, making me cry, and me walking back to my seat, eyes downcast, hiding in the tears, afraid to be seen, avoiding the sixty-two eyes grateful it wasn’t them. 

I wonder do you remember Cathy reading aloud and when she got a word wrong—said free instead of three—making her say it over and over and over, and when she still got it wrong, standing her in the corner, her back to the room, highlighting her misdemeanour all day long. 

I wonder do you remember Maria sucking her thumb because she was four and that’s what four-year-olds do, and asking her was she a baby, and going to the convent and returning with a dummy and making her sit there sucking it all afternoon, because that’s what babies do. 

I wonder do you remember ringing the bell at the end of break and watching us line up to return to class and striking the last one on the back with that big brass ringer—every single day. 

I wonder do you remember taking me upstairs to Sister Eileen’s class to answer a sum that my sister, one year older, couldn’t answer, and me standing with my hands behind my back counting on my fingers because I was scared to get it wrong, and looking at my sister when her teacher said, see even your little sister knows the answer. 

I wonder do you remember Deirdre, sitting on her left hand because it’s devil’s work to use it, slowly and carefully shaping her letters but getting them backwards sometimes, and you rapping her fingers with the ruler each time the b became d, dab she wrote, it’s bad you said. 

I wonder do you remember how angry you would get at nothing at all, any excuse to use your metre stick to strike us, small children in your care, holding our small hands in yours as the stick whooshed down, breaking once across Niamh’s palm. 

I wonder do you remember me pulling my hand away after you’d struck me eight times and the stick landed on yourself and I ducked under your arm, your puce face bloating, and I raced to the classroom and hid under the desk, then climbed out the window and ran all the way home. 

I wonder do you remember teaching me my first words of Irish, and every morning’s roll call—anseo, anseo, anseo, here, here, here—until one morning, Cathy, you said, and I looked and said Níl sí anseo—she isn’t here—because Cathy had gone; her mummy had sent her to another school. 

I wonder do you remember any of this as I see you walking down the high street fifty years later, saying your hellos and goodbyes to people you pass, your habit short these days, your head veil-less, your grey hair thin, a smile on your face. 

Níl sí anseo I say as you pass, my white hair shining in the sun, looking right through you. 

Muiread O’Hanlon is an Irish writer from Downpatrick, currently working in the north west of England. She began writing fiction in 2022 after a health scare, and has been long listed in the Bedford Writing Competition 2023. Her work has been published in the New Feathers Anthology 2023. She can be found on Instagram @muireadohanlonauthor.