Chapter 9 – Speaking in Public
Leanne started to get me up at eight thirty the next morning. The bright light shining through the window immediately signalled a changed in the weather. It was to be a bright albeit cold day.
Today was Friday, the end of the college week. My only lecture was at twelve and my mother would be collecting me in the family`s wheelchair accessible van at two just after I finished my lunch to bring me back to Mullingar.
I made sure to keep the chit chat with Leanne to a minimum so that I wouldn’t be late. She was significantly slower than Patrick whether it was pushing me from one spot to the other in the hoist or preparing my breakfast. Usually it wouldn’t bother me but I was feeling anxious today and was getting worse as time rocketed to ten to ten.
As I left the apartment driving towards the Wall, I was feeling very tense wondering what I`d do if I was jeered or laughed at. It was a very uncomfortable thought and one which thoroughly took away from a brisk but pleasant morning.
I was surprised to see Eamonn and not Casey when I reached the Wall. To me Eamonn was more of a partying rather than political student. It gave me a sinking feeling.
“Are you ready,” he said with a large grin.
I tried to put all doubts to the back of my mind and told him that I was and enquired which class I would be giving the talk to.
“Actually, it`s two classes. Don`t worry, they are only small classes. Let`s go. We`re on a tight schedule, we have to make sure we get there before the lecturers.”
With that we headed to the nearest lift. He pressed the button to call it and while we were waiting, I got him to take off my coat which had been thrown over me and buttoned behind my neck.
As we headed towards the first floor, I could feel my heart pumping and my body beginning to sweat but there was no turning back now. If I said I would do something then it will be done. This was always important but was exceptionally so if you had a disability because people could lose faith in you very quickly.
The first class that I was to target was only a short distance from the lift and I reached it in seconds. I briefly paused outside, Eamonn wished me luck and then in I went.
The way into the centre of the small only half full classroom was blocked by chairs so I gave it just to the side of centre of the class. Clearing my throat, I raised my voice introducing myself and began to deliver the speech. I could hear someone “ssshhing” the other students.
As I read out the first paragraph, I briefly looked up to make eye contact with the audience. About three quarters of the roughly fifteen students were looking directly at me. Suddenly I felt myself burning up but I stoically continued on.
Then I reached the keywords on the sheet but I managed to keep going from memory although I`m sure that I left some of the lines out.
Finally, I reached the end and thanked everyone for listening. Then much to my relief I heard a few claps coming from the back of the class. I reversed back out of the class to Eamonn who said well done and informed me that if we went quickly, we could still make the other class.
Off we went in a hurry with Eamonn leading the way. The corridors were getting more crowded now. At least part of me was hoping we would be too late.
About a minute later we reached the second classroom and Eamonn nodded at me to go in. This time I went straight to the top of the class unencumbered. This classroom was a good deal bigger and the students were busy talking to each other creating a lot of background noise. I started my speech just like before. However, this time the room did not fall quiet but I continued on. Nearing the end of the first paragraph I briefly looked up to make eye contact. Very few of the students were looking at me which in a way relaxed me although I knew it wasn’t a good sign for getting my message across.
There were no claps after I thanked the class for listening. I then drove back out this time feeling a sense of failure.
“I don’t think that went as well,” I said nervously to Eamonn.
But he told that I did alright and not to worry that you won’t always be well received. It made me feel a bit better, I didn’t want to be letting people down.
He then helped me back down the lift to the main floor of the building where we said our goodbyes. I now had an hour to kill to my next lecture. I decided to drive around the building and see if there was anyone, I knew rather than heading back to the flat for such a short time.
As I was driving around, I could see that there was a bundle of newspapers on a table in the smoking area. I went over to read the headlines. It would be too difficult for me to turn the page.
It was the “Student Observer” and the headline was bad news – Liam Hennigan surges ahead with sixty percent of vote. Seemingly people were impressed with his track record and charisma.
Stewart was in second place way behind with just twenty percent of the vote. He had a lot of catching up to do.
There wasn’t much time to turn things around. The election was to be the following Wednesday, it looked like I could well be on the losing side.
The rest of the morning went quickly and I was soon travelling back to Mullingar in the back of the van. My mother was not very impressed with what I`d been up to when I mentioned it to her telling me I should be concentrating on my studies and that she wasn`t spending all this money to get some Stewart guy elected President.
I told her that I hadn’t missed any lectures or anything but it didn`t soothe her ire. It occurred to me that I shouldn’t mention canvassing Wednesday when I probably would miss a lecture or two.
I spent the whole weekend looking forward to getting back to college. My social life now seemed to be revolving around it. Fortunately, I could discuss what was happening with my sister Karen knowing that studying wouldn`t be dragged into the conversation. She was intrigued by the goings on and was impressed that I had the courage to speak in front of a class. I loved the way that I could discuss everything with her and considered myself blessed to have such a lovely sister.
She was full of news. Linda and Jason had broken up. Seemingly Linda deserved it and there was no reason to feel any sympathy for her. I was surprised that Karen seemed happy about it but she was very coy about exactly what had happened.
The weather was now turning colder, a sign that winter was fast approaching. Even with Christmas, I hated the winter. The cold and rain meant that I had to spend most of the time indoors. Just as well there was television that I could watch.
Eventually the weekend came to an end and I was back in college where everything was happening. On Monday the campus was plastered with posters and the atmosphere seemed to build. Patrick was my PA for the first half of the week and I had a great time winding him up that I was the master orator who was going to win this election much to his laughter.
The lectures seemed to fly by. The election was now the main topic of conversation with my class. I freely told them that I was involved in Stewart`s campaign but didn`t mention my speeches worried they would think of me as some sort of fanatic. I only briefly saw Casey and other members of the campaign as they were running from one place to another.
I headed down to the Student Bar at what I now considered to be my usual time eight o`clock. I was surprised and disappointed to find it eerily quiet with only a small crowd. Nevertheless, I decided to stay and have a few drinks. Time seemed to pass fairly slowly until I got chatting to a group of fellas about soccer but I still wondered if this was what I had been waiting all weekend for.
Then half an hour before closing Casey and the gang came in. He immediately came over and told me in a hoarse voice that he wanted to talk to me and that he`d be back in a minute once he got a drink. It made me feel important that even though he was hoarse and tired, he still had to talk to me straight away.
First of all, he asked me how the speeches went. I told him that I enjoyed doing it in a twisted way. I got clapped the first time but the second one got a mute response.
“Oh, sorry about that,” he said faintly, “there should have been someone there to clap.”
Suddenly I realised how much planning was going into every detail.
I was unsure how to take the news he had for me. He told me that I had done a good job with the speeches but they were changing their strategy and didn`t need me to do it anymore.
However, they did need me to do some “hacking” on the day of the election. I thought I would be asked to do this but wasn’t sure exactly what was required so I queried him as to what did it involve?
He responded that I would be allotted a position probably in the Arts Building and my task would involve trying to engage students as they passed to vote for Stewart.
Then he briefly showed me a newly printed leaflet and put it in my shirt pocket. He told me to study it, that I would need to be able to recite Stewarts policies when asked. I then questioned him on how many hours they needed me to do to which he responded as many as I was prepared to do. Polling started at nine, finished at eight that night and they needed people all that time.
Without hesitation I told him that I would do the full day although I would have to head back to the apartment for my lunch and tea. With what energy he had left, Casey shook my clasped hand and thanked me for my contribution to the campaign. Then he left telling me that he was wrecked and needed to go straight to bed. He would see me at nine in the morning on the day of the election.
Deciding that there was no point spending any more time alone I went over to the gang that had come in with Casey. It consisted of Eamonn, John, Ruth and Linda who gave me a big “hi” when I came over. They all looked tired and the atmosphere was a bit down. The topic of conversation was the poll results in the Student Observer which indicated that Stewart was way behind.
John stated angrily that it was “bullshit” and that the paper was biased and influenced the poll in order to put people off voting for Stewart in the real thing. He did continue though that Stewart was probably a bit behind but things could still turn around.
The rest quietly agreed but I think they wanted to believe rather than actually doing so. The conversation then turned to what they needed to do for the next day. My interest had already peaked though and I decided to head back to the flat to go to bed.
The weather had now completely changed from the week before. It was a dry night with only a slight breeze. If only every night could be like this.
Lucy came out of her room as Patrick was making my cup of tea. She quickly asked me if I had heard the poll results to which I said that I had. It seemed to energize her as she talked excitedly about the big lead.
Deciding to change the subject as there was little to retort I asked her if she would be doing any “hacking” on the day of the election.
“Of course!” she replied as if I had asked a nonsensical question.
Patrick now entered the conversation wondering if we were going to be arch enemies for the day to which I replied only till she saw the light. I was feeling tired though and simply decided to go to bed when she hit hit me back with a barrage of criticism of Stuart about his track record and him trying to become a career politician.
As I lay on my bed, I wondered why Casey didn’t want me to do any more speeches. Was I simply no good at it or was it because I needed someone to go round with me to open doors and go up and down lifts?
Maybe they thought Students would think I was being taken advantage of and it would have a negative impact on Stewards campaign. After a while I realized there were too many variables and anyway my main purpose in college was to study.
Chapter 10 – The election
The day prior to the election was largely uneventful and I felt somewhat side-tracked from the event. Everybody was now talking about who they were going to vote for or else that they thought that it was all a pointless exercise and things would stay the same no matter who was elected.
I now felt comfortable telling my classmates how deeply I was involved in Steward`s campaign and how I thought he was a good candidate who they should vote for. They were intrigued by my passion and one asked me why I had got involved.
To me the answer was simple, it was a method through which I could change things for the better, especially students with disabilities. She was surprised by my response and commended me for my actions, seeing that my main aim was to influence policy.
The night prior to the election was dour. For once nobody I knew came into the bar. It was eerily uneventful and I left early which was strange for me. Even when I got back to the flat Lucy was already asleep. Deciding there was little point in staying up just to talk to Patrick about the nonsense that seemingly passed for television I went to bed early but only after telling him that I needed to be up first thing. Normally I would lie in bed as there were no lectures first thing in the morning.
Surprising I woke up before Patrick the next morning. My eyes burst open and I quickly glanced from Patrick sleeping soundly at the other end of the room to the wall immediately at the other side of my bed. It was only still brightening up outside and it was another ten minutes before Patrick started getting up. I spent the time thinking about the day ahead of me and wondering how it was going to go.
Soon Patrick was getting me up. I quickly went through the motions of eating my breakfast and brushing my teeth. There was no sign of Lucy and I hoped her laziness was a good sign for the rest of the day.
As I exited the apartment, I told Patrick that I would be gone for a few hours and to wish me luck. However, I could tell by his smug grin that he couldn`t care less one way or the other. I just hoped that my fellow students would find me more inspiring.
There was a beautiful blue sky with a chilly wind. The leaves were beginning to fall from the trees. My timing was almost too perfect. I was so early that there was no student to open the door. It took about five minutes for one to come along. When I finally got in, the place seemed empty. I thought this would be a good time to talk to Casey and raced passed the wall. The voting area soon came into view. It was down the wide corridor to my right in what would normally have been part of the smoking area.
There were people swarming around in a white semi-circle. I guessed that they were enemy hackers and that there must be an exclusion zone you can`t enter without voting. I drove onwards looking for some members of my team.
It didn`t take long to find them. I suddenly heard a loud shout which startled me – “Alan”. It was Casey. He was in the smoking area sitting down alone beside one of the tables which was covered with columns of leaflets and paper. I immediately drove in beside him. He seemed excited to see me and thanked me for showing up. He told me that my quadrant was just outside where we were sitting.
Immediately I thought to myself that it was a key strategic area beside two of the biggest lecture theatres. He handed me a few leaflets telling me that I could hand them to anyone who was interested. I was only able to hold five in the hand I didn`t drive the wheelchair with but he told me that this table should be manned throughout the day and to come back later when I needed more.
I drove out into my quadrant and surveyed my surroundings. There were three other hackers in the vicinity, two lads and a girl but somewhat amusingly there was not a potential voter in sight. The entrances to the two largest lecture theatres were to my left and to my right. Down the middle between the two of them was the corridor which linked the building to the library. The girl was short with long blonde hair and I wondered to myself who she was canvassing for.
It seemed to me to be quite an important strategic location. Thousands of students or today potential voters would pass through this area throughout the day. I readied myself mentally for the task ahead, I needed to put my mind into the right zone and put thoughts and worries about how people would react to my disability to the back of my mind. If they reacted badly or turned the conversation to my disability, I would deal with it.
It didn`t take long for the first potential voter to come along. It was a young female student. I decided to sit back and see what the other hacker`s tactics were. The girl whose name I now found out to be Aine was canvassing in relation the Entertainment Officer position was the first to attack –
“Hi my name is Aine. Have you decided who to vote for Entertainment Officer?” she politely asked in a posh Dublin accent.
But she was ignored and the potential voter just walked past her and then the rest of us without even saying a word. It soon became apparent that a hacker had to get the potential voter to engage in conversation before they can be influenced.
One of the other two hackers was canvassing for Liam for President. He was tall, surly and seemed anxious. He was my main opponent. The remaining hacker was a member of that Socialist party. His candidate was doing too poorly in the polls for me to be worried about him.
I took up a position right in the middle of the corridor turning to face the direction that students were coming from at that time. Quickly getting the hang of it I tried to make eye contact as they approached while saying “vote Stewart for President “.
In truth most students simply kept their heads down and wanted to get where they were going with as little hassle as possible. Others simply smiled and walked past. Then occasionally one would stop to converse with you.
The students came and went in massive waves in line with lectures beginning and ending. During lectures the flow was a mere trickle and the hackers would swoon around their prey.
The first wave of students had caught me off-guard but soon I was invigorated. It didn`t take long to get into conversation with my first potential voter. She was a first year Arts Student who told me that Liam was her first preferences and why should she vote for Stewart.
I was ready and listed off Stewart`s policies one by one. When she said that Liam had a lot of policies too, I told her that I knew Stewart personally and that he was really determined to do a great job. She told me now she wasn’t sure who to vote for now before walking on which I considered at least a partial victory.
As the morning progressed, I had success with seven people outright telling me they would vote for Stewart on the basis of what I said. It gave a huge thrill to know that I could influence people.
However, a lot of people just said that they were voting for Liam as they walked past. This was giving me the impression that he had a large lead and all my efforts were likely to be inconsequential.
It also became clear early in the morning that I needed to be careful and keep the movement of the wheelchair to a minimum in order to conserve energy as the battery would run out before the end of the day.
Every so often Casey or Eamonn would drop by to see how I was getting on. I would tell them that I was doing fine but the impression I was getting was that Liam was probably winning. Eamonn would just tell me to keep going but Casey would try to further motivate me by telling me it wasn’t over till it was over.
Soon it was one o`clock and time for me to head back for my lunch. I scanned my surroundings for three minutes to see if there was anybody who could take my place but to no avail so I decided to go and try to get back as quickly as possible leaving my leaflets on a table in the smoking area. On my way back I passed by Lucy jokingly telling her that she was late for the start of the battle. She laughed and said she forgot to set her alarm clock, asking me where I was going. When I told her that I was going for a bite to eat she told me that she would be following me up shortly.
Patrick had everything ready when I got back to the apartment. He told me Lucy had ran out the door a few minutes after I had left screaming that she was late much to his amusement. I asked him how his morning had gone. On Wednesday mornings after he left me, he went to a fella called Mickey to be his P.A. for a few hours. Patrick would tell me great stories about Mickey betting big money on horses and today proved no exception. Mickey had seemingly won a hundred and fifty pounds on some long shot.
It didn`t take me long to finish my lunch and go to the toilet. Then I said goodbye to Patrick knowing that it was the end of his shift and that Leanne would be there on my return. I raced at full speed back to my quadrant. Worryingly only one of my leaflets was left but knowing that I had to make the best of what I had, I got straight back into it.
The afternoon slot was quieter as there was less lectures than in the morning. The voters were contested more keenly now between the hackers with a smaller pool to divvy up. Gradually a lot of the few students now passing were telling us that they had already voted. Half way through Casey passed by and I asked him for more leaflets which he told me to use sparingly as they were running low.
After a while the hackers started to talk amongst ourselves. The main topic of conversation was who we thought was winning each election. It was agreed that most were clear cut but the odd person thought the Presidential election was still up for grabs. It was Liam`s hacker that thought that Stewart still had a great chance but I thought he must be holding onto that thought in order to motivate himself.
The battery gauge for the wheelchair was now showing that I had used a lot of power although I felt like I had barely moved at. It seemed the numerous small movements were all slowly accumulating. I just had to hope that I would have enough battery power for the rest of the day.
Gradually even the other hackers became scarcer. I didn`t see anyone from my own campaign in an age and quietly I was wondering maybe the rest of them had given up and gone home although I was pretty sure that wasn`t the case. Soon half five approached and it was time for my second pit stop as I liked to think of it. Once again, I raced back to my apartment. However, this time I brought the remaining leaflets with me, lest there be none available on my return.
There was no sign of Leanne when I looked in the window of the apartment. It immediately gave me a sinking feeling. I worried about what I would do if she hadn`t been able to make it. I was already feeling the urge to go to the toilet and my back-up plans were flimsy at best.
Just as I thought I was about to panic Leanne appeared. She immediately saw me and came out to open the doors. As she opened the outer door, she apologized saying that she had been making my bed which I accepted with immense relief.
Leanne always had large dinners ready and today was no exception. The mashed potato formed a mini mountain on the plate. Leanne started telling me all about what had happened since I had last seen her which mostly consisted of tales about her dog “Tiny”. The poor dog wasn`t well and she talked about bringing him to the vet. Quietly I thought to myself that this dog probably wouldn`t live much longer and I`d be left trying to console her afterwards. It was all she had except for her husband who she didn`t like talking about.
For my part I told her about my day canvassing and what it involved. She was surprised when I told her that I was heading back out after I went to the toilet and probably wouldn`t be back till after ten. As I said goodbye, she seemed concerned but I told her not to worry and that everything would be fine.
The Arts Building was now largely deserted except for the odd hacker here and there. On my way in I realised that I still had to vote myself so I made my way to the voting area. I met Casey just outside the exclusion area and told him to hold on to my leaflets while I voted, to put my student card into my right hand which currently was in my shirt pocket and that I`d be back in a second. He looked drained but still managed a smile.
It was now my turn to get shouted at as I passed over the white line into the voting area. In truth all their messages had become garbled by the time they reached my ears.
I approached the main desk and put my student card on it. The two ladies behind the desk were very helpful and helped me mark the different voting cards. I did get a twisted thought that though that wouldn’t it be funny if I voted against the person, I was canvassing for but I didn’t follow through.
The whole process only took about three minutes and I was back out again asking Casey how he thought the election was going. He said that he thought Stewart was still right in it and that we had to try to keep going till the voting stopped at eight.
I took the leaflets back off Casey and went back to my area. Only the odd voter would now pass through but they seemed more prepared to chat to you. Their demographic profile had changed too. It was mostly mature students so they were much older who now had classes in the evening.
One man in his fifties kept me talking for well over fifteen minutes quizzing me on every aspect of what Stewart intended to do as President. In the end perhaps sensing my exasperation he said he would vote for him and I gave him directions towards the booth.
As the final hour approached it was clear there was no point in holding my area. As potential voters were now so few, if you did manage to influence one someone closer to the voting area would simply change their mind again in between. This led to a swarm of hackers around the voting area who would close in on any potential voter that passed into the area. It led to people keeping their heads down and quickly walking past the white line of safety.
Soon it was all over. I was relieved as my wheelchair was showing that I had used up an awful lot of battery power. It was quite difficult to know how much further it would bring me but I was quite sure it would get me to the Student Bar and back to my flat.
I went over to Casey who was now talking to Eamonn. Much to my disappointment he said that everybody involved in the different campaigns was meeting up in a pub in the city centre which was over three miles away. Eamonn said they could lift me into a car and bring me. Casey asked if there was a way to fold up the electric wheelchair and put it in the boot. I knew that they were genuinely prepared to help me, but any such endeavour faced a myriad of problems and wasn`t really worth attempting. I wasn`t sure if it was even possible for me to get into a car seat as my legs didn`t bend. Then folding up the wheelchair and putting it back together was difficult and very time consuming. Finally, I would have needed to go back to the flat to go to the toilet and by then I expected my battery to be close to exhaustion.
So, I told them that I didn`t think it was a good idea. They tried to change my mind but I stuck to my guns. They couldn`t wait long so off they went but not before telling me that they`d meet me here round two thirty for the result. It was moments like this that I hated. No matter how hard I tried my disability would occasionally find a way to get in my way. I imagined that if I was able bodied that I would have had a great time and had sex with some beautiful woman. But in this existence at least they would stay merely as dreams.
Instead I would head straight back to the flat, have a cup of tea and an early night. But it was still a good day.
Chapter 11 – The Result
Now that the election was over it was time to refocus my efforts on my studies. Hopefully Stewart would win but my main priority had to be trying to pass all my exams. After all my mother would freak if she knew I had wasted so much time on a non-academic pursuit.
My morning was filled with lectures but I reckoned I could meet the lads for the results without missing anything. Lucy who came out into the main room in her pyjamas while I was eating my breakfast was feeling very confident and had a big smile on her face when asking me if I still thought Stewart would win. I didn`t but I couldn’t listen to her gloat so I said we`ll find out later.
It was Business Organisation for two hours to start off the day. I often wondered why they didn’t call it the jargon class or how to talk for over an hour without actually saying anything concrete.
Today it was “Business Process Re-engineering”. It was a new business philosophy that apparently could turn loss making companies around if only people would apply it properly. The examples cited seemed obvious things to do anyway like cutting out unnecessary activities but I think it was more about thinking in a certain kind of way. It was tough to stay awake during the lecture and a lot of my fellow students succumbed to temptation.
The bad news filtered through when the lecture ended. Stewart was way behind in the early counting and it was very unlikely he would win. It was a disappointing feeling. It would have been interesting to know the Student Union President next year and be able to hang out in the Union Offices. Alas, it wasn`t to be.
The morning continued to pass slowly. Next up was a Maths lecture followed by Economics. Unusually I was starving by the time lunchtime arrived and really looking forward to my daily cheese sandwich and strawberry yoghurt. Lucy was there when I got back to the flat. She had a big smile on her face and couldn`t contain her happiness. Her good mood had rubbed off on Leanne and I saw no good reason to dampen the atmosphere.
“Well done Lucy, the best candidate won,” I said immediately congratulating her.
It wasn`t what she expected and she suddenly seemed unsure of herself stating the final result wasn`t out but it was looking good. I asked her if she had headed into the city for the drinking session the previous night. She said that it was a great night and that I should have went. Not wanting to discuss the difficulties involved I simply said that I should have.
Leanne then proceeded to ask us all about the election. I proceeded to have my lunch but Lucy readily told her version of the truth. Lucy asked me if I wanted to go down to the results with her & I said that I would.
It didn’t begin till half two so we watched a bit of television before going down. We only had four channels and there nothing interesting on but it passed the time nonetheless. Some Students spent nearly their whole day in front of the television but it wasn’t for me. I wanted to think I was getting the full college experience.
Soon it was quarter past two and we decided to head down. There seemed to be an immediate buzz once we entered the Arts Building. We could hear the noise of people talking in the distance and I immediately got a gut feeling that something major was happening.
Lucy said that there must be a big crowd ahead of us and she was proved correct. As we approached the designated area we were met by a wall of people. I thought about trying to nudge people out of the way but it crossed my mind that someone could fall on top of me while celebrating when the results were read out. I could hear that someone was shouting for everybody to be quiet so the results could be announced but it was very faint from my position.
I could tell that Lucy was wondering what to do so I told her that I`d be ok and to try and get through the crowd on her own. She reluctantly agreed and left me to join the mass in front of me. She quickly disappeared from view.
Once more I could hear the faint inaudible sound of someone speaking in the distance. I had to rely on other people chatting after the person spoke to make out what was happening. Even then it was apparent that Stewart had lost and quite badly. I felt a tinge of disappointment especially knowing all the effort that was put in but quickly decided it was time to get back to business and decided to go look for some of my classmates before my next lecture.
For the rest of the day my academic future once more took top priority and I resolved that I wouldn`t get side tracked again, at least not this academic year.
That night I headed down to the bar a bit earlier than usual round eight o`clock to see what was going on. Lucy had told me that everybody was meeting up as a swansong to the elections. The place was buzzing and I could see that the people involved in Stewart`s campaign were at a table in the corner. There was no sign of Stewart himself though.
Everybody seemed to be in relatively good form. Linda immediately asked me if she could get me a drink to which I replied that I`d love a vodka and orange and she went up to get it. I drove adjacent to the table they were at but could only make out every second sentence that was said due to the music in the background.
Ruth was giving out about Stewart saying that he should have gone to the pub with them rather than heading home. Over the night it became clear that Stewart had headed off once he got the results much to a lot of his own supporters’ displeasure.
But as the drinks flowed down the mood turned positively jolly; as if a weight had been lifted off our shoulders. I was having a good talk with Linda and was thinking I should make a move on her. But just then John butted in and somehow the conversation turned to uniting the North with the rest of the country. Normally I love debates but it couldn`t have come at a worse time. Tipsy Linda put her effort into arguing for peace and reconciliation whereas John argued that it had always taken a bullet to bring the British to the negotiating table.
I was in far too good a humour to discuss blood and politics and quickly lost interest. After a few minutes Casey came over and thanked me for my contribution to the campaign even if Stewart had lost. He then continued that he now considered me a good friend and if I ever needed anything to let him know. Interrupting John who was in deep conversation with Linda, he told him what he had said and John agreed. I thought it was a nice gesture.
Much to surprise it was already getting late and I decided that I better head back to the flat but not before saying goodbye to everybody.
Chapter 12 – The Aftermath
The next few months of college life turned out to be some of the best days of my life. Gradually I became more confident in relation the academic challenge and knew if I kept on top of everything that I should easily pass my exams. The weather grew worse but I found that the winter was far milder than in the midlands. Frost was to be a rarity and feeling cold a seldom occurrence.
Over time I got to know a lot of my fellow classmates, even some of them who were never late for their lectures mainly through bumping into them in the Student Bar! Much to my amusement I was known as a very social member of the class. This was a big change from Secondary School where I was known for being smart but little else.
The social life was fantastic. Everybody knew my name and there always seemed to be a pretty girl to talk to. I still talked to the people involved in Stewart`s campaign although perhaps unexpectedly it was John that I seemed to grow closer to, Casey I would bump into about once a week and the others only occasionally.
John despite being much older than those around him went to the Student Bar almost as much as I did. At first, I thought that John was a happy go lucky type of character. He generally always seemed to be in a jovial mood and would always give me a good hello. The fact that he was good at chatting to women also endeared him to me.
One night I came in and he was chatting to two French women. After a few minutes we had managed to divide and conquer. They were both significantly older than me but I got chatting to the younger one who I found out was still thirty-three!
I asked her all about France and what had brought her over here. It was her studies but it was her beauty that had me captivated. She was tipsy but far from being drunk. She had short blonde hair and wide blue eyes that had my heart racing whenever I had the courage to peer into them.
She had smuggled in vodka by mixing it into a mid-size bottle of orange. It wasn`t long before the two of us were drinking from it when John told her that it was my favourite drink.
After we had been talking for fifteen minutes or so, I felt her touch my hand. I told her that she was beautiful and then she leaned over and sensuously kissed me on the lips for a few seconds.
It felt good and gave me a sudden rush of excitement. Immediately though I knew it was important to look calm and collected. To act like someone for whom this really wasn’t all that unusual. So, we continued to talk till the bar closed. I made sure that I asked for a kiss goodnight and I wasn’t disappointed.
As I headed home through a damp night I wondered if I had been able bodied and able to walk her home would I have got a lot more?
Still nothing could crush my feeling of elation and it gave me a new found confidence in relation to women. It wasn’t my first kiss but I was impressed with how I had played.
But I also found out that there was a darker side to John. Occasionally he would make pro-IRA statements like “Brits Out” and “Up the Ra”. For a while though I was unsure just how Republican he was. He had served in the British Navy and was prone to singing Rule Britannia after a few drinks which I thought was a risky enough thing to be doing in Dublin.
One night I was inebriated myself I asked him about it asking him was not a bit of a contradiction. He laughed at my apparent innocence and then quizzed me about who did I think trained the IRA volunteers to which I responded that I didn`t know. He said with a wide grin that the British train them or more particularly the British Navy. It is the one arm of the British Army where you knew you would not end up against the Nationalist community on the streets of Belfast.
At the time I merely laughed to myself without thinking really thinking about it too deeply and drove off in my wheelchair. Weeks passed but then I was given cause for reflection. It was another busy night in the bar – the music was loud and intoxicating; the drink flowed. Near the end of the night Belinda who I talked to regularly told me that she had something she needed to talk to me about. Belinda was a Dublin girl, a few years older than me.
With a concerned appearance she told me that she had what she considered a troubling conversation the previous week with. They had both been intoxicated and he had seemingly admitted to being a member of the IRA and having taken part in several murders. She was disgusted but didn`t let on at the time.
She asked me did she look like someone who would condone murder to which I responded no. Telling me that she didn`t particular mind people saying Republican chants like John did and that she even believed in a united Ireland but that was as far as it went.
My heart missed a beat. Murder & the Republican struggle was not something I came to college to be involved with. She then told me not to say it to anyone else, that she didn`t want to stir trouble but thought I should know what sort of person he was as she seen me with him so often.
I told her not to worry that I wouldn`t tell anyone. A male friend of hers then interrupted us and that brought the conversation to an abrupt end. In truth my mind quickly turned back to getting more drink and its significance only really hit me the next morning when I recalled what had happened the night before.
I wondered if I was obligated to report what I knew but then it was only hearsay. There was no evidence that a murder had even been committed.
Then I thought about my own safety. I was probably the easiest person to kill ever. I more or less was always in the same small area and I couldn`t run away from a threat. The best idea I could come up with was to carry on exactly as I was as if I had heard nothing.
I felt a bit strange the next time I met John. Suddenly he seemed a darker and more serious character. I was careful to show no fear and act like nothing had happened.
As the days and weeks passed, I put the fact that I was cavorting with a killer to the back of my mind. Soon I could laugh at his songs and innuendo once more. It also became clearer over time that Casey also had a darker side. One night while there was a gang of us at the table; he recalled a trip himself and John had made to the Falls Road in Belfast.
By the time they had arrived it was past midnight and much to Casey`s disappointment everything was calm. A major change from the rampant rioting he said occurred a few days earlier to that.
The only person they could find was a British soldier and they decided that they`d go over to him and try to strike up a conversation much to everyone else’s amusement at the table.
It turned out that they had a good chat with the soldier and Casey even got his photo taken with him. He told them where he was from and how long he had been deployed to Northern Ireland. It sounded like Casey was recounting a tender moment but then his tone changed and he said he wish he had had a gun to shoot the bastard at the time.
I was taken aback by the callousness. It was one thing to hear him talk about British soldiers deserving to be shot but quite another to hear he`d shoot someone after just having a jovial conversation.
But such moments were a rare occurrence to the normal goings on which revolved around banter, drinks and girls.
It also became clear that whatever their faults they were friends that I could trust and depend upon. Patrick had taken the week off and I was depending on relief cover that was sent out to me.
I had arranged to meet someone at ten o`clock one night to help me get to bed. However, much to my dismay I received a phone call at to the phone outside my flat at ten to ten that he was sick and wouldn’t be showing up.
He didn’t sound too bad on the phone and when I told him I`d be really stuck he just said he couldn’t make it and hung up the phone. When I told Lucy who was holding up the phone what the message was asked worriedly what would I do now?
I had to respond that I had no idea whatsoever.
Instinct led me to going back into the flat. There Lucy told me that she would help me if she could. She didn’t need to say anymore, with her visual impairment it would be impossible for her to use a hoist.
I briefly thought about ringing my parents but they were over an hour by car away and I needed to go to the toilet fairly urgently by now. Also, I remembered them talking about going away somewhere the previous weekend.
Then a plan came into my head. I rang Leanne and after explaining the situation asked if she could come in the morning the next day rather than at the usual time in the evening. She agreed and now my only problem was how to get to bed.
I told Lucy that I was heading down to the Bar to try and find some help. She opened the doors and off I went. Fortunately, John was there and agreed to help me after I told him what had happened.
He was a bit surprised and miffed though that I wanted to head back to my flat immediately rather than having a few drinks but it had been hours since I last went to the toilet and I was in a rush. Anyhow it was probably best that he wasn’t too intoxicated when I was trying to instruct him how to use a hoist.
When we arrived back in the flat, I went straight into my bedroom to begin the transfer onto the hoist. John though got caught up in conversation with Lucy. He was definitely a bit tipsy. After a few minutes I had to give him a shout as I knew I couldn`t wait much longer.
Instinctively I realised there was no point in telling him overall what we were trying to do. Instead I gave him step by step instructions and tried to portray total calmness and hide the panic I was feeling inside into a quiet corner of my mind.
The sling was to go in the shape of a trouser behind me and certain hooks that were colour coded had to be used. It was green in the back and black in the front. He didn’t get it right but luckily, I noticed and got him to correct it despite his look of disbelief. It was a great relief to feel my legs being lifted off the wheelchair and John’s wayward pushing of the hoist didn’t disconcert me.
It was nothing to finally being able to go to the toilet and urinate though. Sometimes the best feelings in life can be the simplest ones. I cut short the process of going to bed given the circumstances and got John to drop me on to the bed without taking off my shirt and vest. It was easy for him to get my trousers off while I was lying down and then he simply pulled over the sheets telling me mischievously that if I was lucky Lucy would pay me a visit during the night.
He didn’t hang around. It was a quick goodnight and the lights were switched off. He was anxious to get down to the bar before closing time to try and get one last drink. Fortunately, I slept soundly but I was mightily relieved when Leanne showed up the next morning to get me up.
Back in Mullingar life had proceeded with or without me. At time I could feel a distance growing between me and what was happening there. Superficially everything was the same on the surface but deep down I felt things would never be the same again.
Karen would still talk to me for hours but I felt there was something she wasn’t telling me. The conversations centred on her school; what she had to study and the different projects she had. There seemed to be little talk of boys and Linda got mentioned less and less until there was none at all. She has also started wearing much more make-up and my mother mentioned to me that she has gone on a diet. It bothered me that we had always been so close but now she would go out on Saturday nights and not mention to me who she was meeting.
I no longer knew the latest gossip at my mother’s workplace or what major project my father was working on.
A lot of my former classmates from Secondary School would meet up every weekend and go drinking together. I would only bump into them occasionally because my money was nearly always fully spent during the week. It was also far easier to go to the Student Bar which was almost right beside my apartment.
But part of me realised that these changes were inevitable. It was my goal to go to college and be independent. Part of that was moving away from my old life and carving out a new one. Nothing ever stayed the same.
In any event I was sure that I had chosen the correct path. My life was now full of learning, an active social life, lots of beautiful women and adventure.
If I had decided to simply stay where I was, I would likely have been unable to find unemployment and been stuck in the house trying to fill long dreary boring days.
Now I had to stay the course and make sure I made it to the second year of my course.
Chapter 13 – Tragedy
It had been a clear, cool February uneventful day. The worst of the winter over, there were warmer days ahead. I had attended all my lectures for the day and I was on the way back approaching my flat. Then much to my puzzlement I saw my family’s wheelchair accessible van parked opposite the flat. It was only Wednesday so I wasn’t due to be collected.
I instinctively drove the wheelchair at maximum speed and looked in the window. My mother and Leanne both had tears rolling down their faces. I now knew something was very wrong.
My mother got up off the couch and was coming to open the doors for me. Leanne looked down as if she couldn’t bear to look at me.
“Come in.” I heard in a terse barely recognizable voice.
“What’s wrong?” I asked nervously.
“Go straight into your room and I will tell you there.”
As I entered the room my heart was already beating ferociously in nervous anticipation. My Mam sat down in front of me on top of my bed. Tears rolling down her eyes and an expression of shock etched onto her face she struggled to speak.
“Karen is dead.”
For a second that seemed like an epoch I wondered if this was reality. Then I felt my heart tear apart and my eyes swell with tears.
The question came instinctively although it couldn’t change the fact. My beautiful sister that I always thought would be there for me through thick and thin was gone from this world never to return.
“It was an accident late last night.. Don’t worry about it now. She is gone.”
My mother could say no more. She collapsed onto the bed crying quietly to herself and then suddenly reaching over to hug me tightly in the wheelchair. I knew I had to try to be strong if not for myself then for her. After a few minutes we managed to compose ourselves and I hesitantly asked what happened now.
She replied that we needed to head straight back to Mullingar; that we were a family and we needed to be together.
Still choking back my tears I asked what would I do with Leanne and Patrick. My mother told me that we would tell them that they can take a few days off and we`ll ring them when you`re coming back. She had already spoken to Leanne.
With that we left the apartment and she silently loaded me in the van. I knew things would never be the same again.
The journey back to Mullingar felt like the longest I`d ever been on. There wasn`t a word said except for my mother occasionally asking me if I was okay. I did try to think of something to say but everything now seemed so unimportant.
It felt strange as the van pulled into the yard at my parent`s house knowing that Karen would not be there to greet me; not this time or in the future. My Dad came out to help unload me from the van. He simply put his arm on my shoulder as an acknowledgment of the terrible situation we found ourselves in.
He looked pale and in a state of shock. Normally not one to show his emotions, he was as grief stricken as the rest of us. I felt like all those around me had been destroyed.
As I entered the house my Dad went in front of me and turned on the television for me to watch in the sitting room and gave me the remote control. Switching from station to station I tried to find something that could at least momentarily distract me from my sadness but to no avail.
Soon the callers came; mostly neighbours and later relatives. I could hear them offering their condolences in the distance saying that she was a great girl and that she didn`t deserve to have this happen to her. Some of them came in and patted me on the shoulder. As the night drew in I realised that I still didn`t know what happened to her. I decided that I wouldn`t ask about it now, I didn`t want to burden my parents more on this terrible day.
I went to bed early too drained emotionally and physically to carry on. It didn`t take long for me to fall asleep.
Then the sound of the door bell ringing half woke me from my slumber. My eyes slowly opened. It took me a few seconds to realise that I was back in Mullingar and what happened. Instinctively I knew it was late. Then I heard the patter of steps and the front door being opened.
It was difficult to make out what was being said although I was pretty sure that I could hear my parent’s voices some of the time. Then in the midst of all the murmurings I heard “murder”. For a second, I felt stunned and worried but gradually convinced myself that I was mistaken and that I should fall back asleep.
The next thing I knew I had awoken up again but this time it was morning. The sun’s light was shining through the curtain ushering in a new day. I was unsure if the event during the night had actually happened or if it was some sort of strange dream, I had because of the emotional state I had been in the day before.
I decided I`d keep it to myself in case my imagination had played a trick on me. After a few minutes I could hear rumblings from the rest of the house which was an indirect message that I would be shortly getting up.
After a few minutes my father entered my bedroom to get me up. It was a process that would take a full hour. During it he asked me how I was and if I slept well to which I replied as well as could be expected.
After I was lowered from the hoist to my wheelchair, I went in to the kitchen to find my mother sitting down waiting for us. I asked her what was up and she said that there was something they needed to tell me glancing over to my father.
I wondered if it had something to do with my strange dream.
“Karen was murdered,” she said trying to hold back the tears.
It wasn`t a dream; they didn`t want to tell me until they were sure. The Guards had called late last night with the results of the initial examination by the State Pathologist and confirmed the strong suspicions that it wasn’t a natural death. She had been found in a semi clothed state of dress by the canal which straddled the town. She had died from asphyxiation.
Everyone was in tears as she informed me that she had been sexually assaulted. The Gardai were following a definite line of enquiry.
Then for the first time I felt anger and I asked who did it. But they said that they had told me everything they knew. The full autopsy would be carried out today. They wouldn’t be able to finalize the funeral and burial arrangements until the body had been released.
The rest of the day passed with a sense of unreality. There was now no joy in the house only memories of what had been. Hours, then days meshed into one another as if time itself no longer mattered. I spent the day staring endlessly at the television trying not to think and the nights sobbing to myself.
Occasionally Darren would call and try to cheer me up and take my mind off what had happened but mostly I just felt like I was waiting for him to leave. He told me that he gotten a job as a salesman in town. He was proud of what he had achieved and told me that someday I`d have a great job; but it just wasn`t important to me anymore and definitely no longer the main goal in life.
The body was released confirming that she had been raped and then strangled. The only solace was that the Gardai had arrested somebody and seemed confident of securing a conviction.
Garda White was the liaison Officer for the family. He informed us that a member of the McPherson family who were from McKeever Park was responsible. They were a notorious crime family in the town although usually for relatively minor offences such as assault or thieving. This was a major escalation.
The funeral arrangements were now put in place and finally Karen could be put to rest. My mother took the lead in organising things. For a while she always seemed to be on the phone.
Soon the day of the funeral arrived. Nobody close to me had died before so I wasn`t sure what to expect. It was to be held in the Cathedral, a majestic setting and the biggest Church in the town. Its spire could be seen from most vantage points in the town reflecting the town`s former religiosity. It`s grey exterior reflected the dour climate of the area and the mood I was in that that day. The interior though was bright and spacious with medieval looking carvings on its side walls even though it was not yet fifty years old.
The media were by now reporting that Karen had been murdered and I wasn`t that surprised when I saw a film crew on the way in.
I had to go in before everybody else with my uncle. There was a set of steps at the front of the cathedral that the coffin would be brought up. I had to go in the side entrance where there was a ramp a few minutes beforehand and wait for the coffin and my parents to arrive. Even in my darkest day my disability would still try to rip one more part of my soul away. It was already clear that the funeral would have a massive attendance. I situated myself to the side of the front row of seats beside where I expected my parents to sit.
Soon I heard the doors at the back of the church open. My uncle looked behind me and told me that they were coming. I could hear the sound of steps come closer and closer until my parents sat down beside me.
As the sombre occasion proceeded Karen never left my thoughts. The event passed in a haze. I tried to stay strong for my parents; after all they were suffering just as much as I but it was very hard.
The priest mentioned how much she a shining beacon in the lives of those who knew her, that she didn`t deserve this awful thing to happen to her and that God would welcome her into his kingdom. I felt a chill run through my spine; I had never been the strongest believer in the afterlife and had to force negative thoughts about never seeing her again to the back of my mind.
Some of her former classmates did some of the readings, the raw emotion audible in their voices; realising I could not take much more of reality I tried to zone out to a different time and place but to no avail.
The mass then ended and the congregation were invited to offer their condolences. They formed a long line down the centre of the church and started to slowly pass by shaking my parent`s and other relative`s hands who were sitting in the front row. Most simple nodded in my direction unsure whether they should shake my clasped hand probable for fear they`d hurt me or it would lead to an awkward moment. But those who knew me better did.
It was a long precession. I was surprised that quite a lot of people who only knew me showed up; former teachers, classmates and acquaintances. I was surprised how I cared. It was nice to see them.
But I was very surprised to see Casey and John, not sure if I was imagining things at first. Casey whispered into my mother’s ear while looking over at me that they knew me from college which led to her giving a slight smile. Both gave me a warm embrace and told me they`d see me back in college.
It took over ten minutes for the line to come to an end. I didn`t recognise quite a lot of the people and wondered if they were there for the event as much as anything else.
As they went to lift the coffin, I finally broke into tears not able to hold back for one second longer and sobbed uncontrollably. My mother kissed my cheek as she went to join my father walking behind the coffin on the way to the graveyard ten minutes away.
My uncle asked me if I was ok to which I nodded yes and we quickly went out to the van so as not to fall too far behind. The worst moment was watching the coffin being lowered into the grave. It was raining and my mother said that it might be best for me to leave early but I had to see it.
Then it was over. There was tea and finger food for those who attended at a local hotel but I felt too drained to attend and asked my uncle to drive me back to the house.
Over the next few days, a semblance of normality began to return although the mood remained dark.
My mother asked me if I was going to go back to college the following week, Leanne and Patrick had both rung to see what was happening. My parents had struggled to get me funding for PAs so that I would have the opportunity to attend, so I knew I couldn’t just throw it away and I thought it might do me good to get out of the town so I replied that I would.
Later that day the family received further terrible news from Garda White who wasn’t even able to look at us in the eye. The case against the suspect had been dropped. The chief witness had been intimidated despite their best efforts into retracting his statement.
As I lay in my bed that night sorrow had given way to anger and hatred. Somebody had killed my little sister for their own amusement and now they were going to get away with it.
I just could not let this go and resolved that this crime would not go unpunished. How I could achieve this feat or how long it would take were things that were unknown but I knew that I would find a way even if it took the rest of my lifetime. With that I could finally let myself go asleep.