Naomh Donoghue stared out the rain-spattered window, but she didn’t see the green fields slipping by, as the train sped on towards Connolly Station in Dublin. Nor did she hear the steady clacking of the wheels on steel tracks as she was borne further and further away from her home in Sligo. She was completely oblivious to all the other passengers and even the ticket checker had to cautiously tap her on the shoulder to get her attention. But while externally she seemed calm - almost serene - internally her mind was in turmoil as she battled with her emotions.
Again and again, Naomh went over her last conversation with her mother, before she got into her neighbour’s car and drove the fifteen miles to Ballymote Station. If her mother had been angry it might have been easier. If they had a furious row and Naomh had stormed off in a temper, she mightn’t feel so guilty and miserable right now. But the truth was her mother was just as docile and accepting when she was leaving, as she had been when Naomh had first told her she had given up her job as a solicitor’s secretary in Sligo town and was going back-packing around Australia for a year, with her friend, Siobhan. Maire Donoghue didn’t point out to her daughter that she depended on her to get the shopping ever since her husband, Seamus had died suddenly fifteen months ago, as she couldn’t drive. She didn’t point out that she depended on Naomh to bring her to the post-office to collect her old-age pension. She listened calmly, as her only child told her with false cheerfulness that it was ‘only for a year’ and that their neighbours; Tom and Bridget O’Reilly, would look in on her and make sure she had everything she needed. She nodded in agreement when Naomh said she would text her every day and maybe they might even be able to Skype each other, even though both of them knew that the older woman could barely manage to make a call on these ‘new fangled’ phones. There had been no rows, no arguments, no attempt at emotional blackmail, not even an accusing look in Maire’s eye, as they embraced warmly at the front door of the little farmhouse that had been home to Naomh for the past twenty-four years. Eventually, she had pulled herself away from her mother’s arms and climbed into Tom’s old, but reliable Toyota.
Now, Naomh sat in the carriage, locked in her own private misery, yet still the tears refused to flow. She agonised over her decision to leave home and start a new adventure for herself. She had been a miracle baby; born when her mother was almost forty-five years old. After seven mis-carriages, Maire and Seamus had long given up hope of ever having children and they were both overjoyed at her arrival. Both devout Catholics, they had immediately christened her ‘Naomh’. Despite the big age difference, Maire and Naomh became firm friends over the years, doing everything together and being chauffeured around by her doting father. When she turned eighteen, she got her driving license and Seamus was relieved of driving duties, as the two women went on regular shopping excursions and even occasional overnight stays away.
All that changed suddenly on one sunny Sunday in July last year. Seamus stood up from the dinner table, placed one hand on his chest and then crashed to the floor. Naomh’s world crashed with him. As the days turned into weeks and the weeks into months, she began to feel more and more trapped, as her mother - helpless with grief - leaned on her with ever increasing frequency. Suddenly, her contented life-style of going to work, going out with Siobhan at the weekends and relaxing at home, started to appear boring and routine. She feared being stuck in a rut and became paranoid about never meeting anyone and getting married. The days of looking after her increasingly dependent mother stretched endlessly in front of her and she became terrified that this was going to be her life from now on.
So, when Siobhan - always impetuous and frequently flitting from one job to another - announced one Friday night, three weeks ago, that she had quit her temping job and was going to Australia for a year, Naomh had decided, on the spur of the moment, to go with her. For the first time, since her father died, she felt alive again and excited about the future. On Monday morning, much to her boss’s disappointment, she gave in her notice. Later that evening, with some trepidation, she told her mother of her plans. Initially, Naomh was relieved that her mother accepted her news so stoically, but as the days slipped nearer to her departure date and she watched the older woman wilt in front of her, she began to feel increasingly guilty. She fervently wished that Maire would get angry with her, or at the very least, raise some objections that they could discuss, but her unquestioning acceptance nearly broke Naomh’s heart.
‘Excuse me miss?’ Naomh’s revere was broken by the almost apologetic voice of a middle-aged woman. She looked up reluctantly. ‘Just wondering miss,’ the apologetic voice continued, ‘if anyone is sitting here? It’s just that.. .’ the older woman trailed off as she gestured aimlessly around her. Naomh took a proper look around her surroundings for the first time since she had boarded the train. In Sligo, her carriage was relatively empty and she’d had her choice of seats. However, on the journey east towards the capital, it had filled up significantly and now as they raced towards Maynooth, every available seat was taken. Now it was Naomh’s turn to apologise; she had been so wrapped up in her own thoughts that she had left this poor woman standing, while she lay sprawled across two seats. Opposite her, two youths sat with their eyes closed listening to whatever music was being pumped into their ears via their AirPods.
Naomh jumped up with embarrassment and then moved over to one side of the seat. ``I'm so sorry,’ she said, ‘I didn’t mean to be rude. I was miles away’. The woman accepted the seat with a smile and waved away the apology. ‘You're fine my dear. I could see you were lost in thought. Forgive me if I’m being nosey and please tell me to mind my own business if you wish, but judging by the expression on your face, those thoughts seemed unhappy ones. If you wish to talk, I’m told I’m a pretty good listener’ Far from being offended, Naomh felt overwhelmed by the other woman’s kindness. Abruptly and without warning, the long unshed tears began to roll freely down her cheeks. As if by magic the older woman produced a clean tissue and within moments Naomh was pouring out her heart to her.
Perhaps it was because she was a stranger, or perhaps it was because she was completely non-judgmental, or maybe it was simply because she was so kind, but for whatever reason, Naomh found herself telling her whole sorry story to this middle-aged woman, whose name she discovered was Ann.
Eventually, Naomh’s voice trailed off as she came to end of her sorry tale, Ann began to quiz Naomh gently about her reasons for going to Australia on a whim and the younger woman admitted shame-facedly that she was afraid of being trapped into looking after her mother. Ann looked her straight in the eye for the first time. ‘Guess where I’m going now?’ she said. Naomh shook her head, non-plussed. ‘I’m meeting my son in Dublin’. Ann’s tone had become much more brisk. ‘We are going to a show in the 3 Arena. My darling husband Jack, died three years ago from cancer. I was devastated - still am. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of him. But life goes on. John, my son, lives in Dublin with his partner. He pops down every two or three weeks for the weekend and I try to get up to him once a month or so’. Suddenly a twinkle came into Ann’s eye. ‘Of course that’s if I’m not too busy with my bingo or going out with my friends - but we’ll always tell each other in advance if a weekend doesn’t suit. You see, John has his life and - slowly but surely - I have mine’.
Ann’s face softened and she took Naomh’s hand in both of hers. ‘Look’, she said, ‘your mother doesn’t have to be a burden on you. I’m sure that is the last thing she would want. From what you told me, ye used to have a wonderful relationship. Right now she is still in bits, missing your poor dad so much that she probably is just trying to get through each day. She just needs help rebuilding her life, piece by piece. Not for me to tell you your business, but maybe you could help with that rebuilding - might even do you some good too?’
The train pulled into Maynooth Station. Abruptly Naomh stood up, flung her arms around Ann and whispered ‘thank you’ into the older woman’s ear. She grabbed her suit-case from the overhead rack and got off the train. She strode resolutely to the ticket-office and booked the next train back to Sligo. It didn’t leave for three hours, so she had plenty of time to make plans and that was exactly what she intended to do. She didn’t have to abandon her mother when she needed her most, but neither did she have to stay stuck in a rut either. She needed to socialise in different ways and meet new people, instead of going down to the local every weekend with Siobhan. Now, with her friend going abroad, it was the right time to start making changes, both for herself and her mother.. As Naomh sat on a platform bench, she pulled out her phone and began scrolling through all the possible clubs and community groups in Sligo, which she and her mother might like to get involved in. It was time for both of them to start living again.
As the train she had just alighted from began to pull out, Naomh looked up to give one final wave to the woman who had given her such wise counsel. She spotted the two youths immediately, bopping away to the music from their AirPods, but there was no-one in the seat opposite them. Strange, thought Naomh she must have moved to a different seat. She resumed scrolling through her mobile for activities in the Sligo and Mayo region. Her finger accidentally tapped on the ‘Death Notices’ website of local radio station Midwest Radio. To Naomh’s complete shock a picture of Ann’s face stared out from the little screen at her. With trembling fingers, she tapped on the obituary. Ann Dempsey (nee Gallagher), Ballycull, Co. Mayo. Peacefully at Mayo University Hospital. Predeceased by her husband, Jack and sadly missed by her grieving son John. An ashen faced Naomh checked the date. Ann had died this morning and the death notice had been uploaded to the radio station’s website twenty minutes earlier.