Scene from 90’s Ireland (The Ballad of Sheila Grealish)

It is Ireland. It is the late 90’s.

It is a land of wealth and happiness, and – for our heroine Sheila Grealish – long Saturday mornings spent at the mirror in the upstairs bathroom inspecting her pores for blackheads.

From a distant part of the universe, the telephone sounds. Sheila pulls away from the mirror a second, frowning. She is not expecting a call.

Paul! she shouts.

Her brother, downstairs watching Sports Stadium – quite close to the phone, in fact – says nothing.

Paul! she repeats, louder.

It’s Mam! he bellows. I’m not getting it.

Get it!

No!

Get it!

You get it!

Please!

This is neither the first nor the last occasion these two lock horns in a similar battle of wills, as the phone shrilly rrrrrrrrrringssss and rrrrrrrringsssss. Inevitably, though, it is Sheila who will answer, lacking the mule-like stubbornness of her brother. She clatters down the stairs and grabs the phone for fear the important caller might disappear.

Hello? she says.

Sheila love–

It is their mother, as Paul correctly intuited.

–I’ve the shopping done, and I’m just on the way home.

Oh feck it, thinks Sheila. Already, she knows what’s coming… unless she can just distract Mammy’s attention somehow.

Mam, did you get that cream for me?

Oh sorry love, I forgot. Sure the pharmacy was packed anyway. I’ll be in again next week, won’t it do then?

No, it won’t, thinks Sheila bitterly. Her skin is breaking out, and it’s now or never to attract Ross Nelson’s attention or that bitch Marie Rooney will be all over him at the disco. Her life is over. Mammy is oblivious to the distress, and coming around to the reason for the call.

Now, love, I’ll be home in ten minutes. Will you just put on the spuds?

Okay–

Just about fifteen will be fine. You can get Paul to peel them. And see if there’s carrots in the press.

A pause, as Sheila checks. There is, she reports. The game is up for our poor heroine Sheila, and she knows it. All she can do is hang on for dear life as the flood of instructions pours forth.

Just put them on so love, about ten minutes before the broccoli. Oh no wait, will you see are there peas in the press?

Dutifully, daughter obeys, only to inform the matriarch that the press is legume-free.

Wait, which press are you looking in?

The one with the carrots.

No, sure why would they be there?

Why indeed? The peas have been hidden in another cupboard, far from the cloying influence of other vegetables. Mammy has issued further instructions preceded by uninspiring reassurances of her proximity:

Now, I’ll be home in ten minutes, will you chop up an onion and put it on the pan, then put the meat on. Is that meat in the fridge alright?

I don’t know.

Have a look, love.

The fridge is opened. A menacing, cold and dense blue-red mass in a plastic bag at the far bottom of the fridge gives no indication of being ‘alright’ or otherwise.

It looks okay.

Does it smell alright?

Sheila sniffs delicately. The first hints of decay are evident, she reports. Mammy is having none of that.

Ah, it’ll be fine. Cut that up into strips and put that on once the onion is softened. And see is there gravy there. I’ll be home in ten minutes now.

Ten minutes is forty-five, and the ‘traffic was mental’ excuse doesn’t hold much water. Mammy enters like the Queen of Sheba, trailing a multitude of stiff paper bags from a sale in that expensive boutique.

Paul, she calls, as she plops down in a seat, go out there and bring in the shopping.

She rests a moment, mingled dignity and weariness. At length, she speaks.

Sheila, love, she says, will you make your Mam a cup of tea and I’ll look after the rest of dinner? God, I’m exhausted. Town was manic.

Of course, Sheila has just completed the last of the herculean tasks involved in preparing the dinner. All by herself, too – Paul’s response to her request that he peel potatoes is not fit to reprint. The poor girl has been frazzled by her work, not to mention concerned at the effect of meat-and-onion steam on her pores.

Mammy’s timing is immaculate. Having supped on her tea, she scurries off to conceal her purchases in the back of a press somewhere. She returns to the stove seconds before Father arrives in the door, to observe his wonderwife in the final stages of conjuring up a hearty meal despite having also completed the weekly shop. And in conditions that could only be compared to the Somme by on-location reporter Mammy. Words like mayhem, carnage and panic are sprinkled as liberally throughout her dinner conversation as the condiment Father applies to his already salt-laden stew.

When the feast has entered the latter stages, and the menfolk are sated, when gravy-saturated mash is in the process of drawing their entire blood supply stomachward, Mammy puts forward a motion to the table.

Now, she says, sure wasn’t that grand?

Hmmmph, mumbles Father through his bulging squirrel-pockets of cheek flesh, stuffed with a melange of chewed meat and mash. At length he finishes his rumination and allows that yes, said food was indeed ‘grand’. Motion seconded and carried. Mammy’s riposte is an object lesson in how to give credit without giving any at all.

Ah sure, said Mammy offhandedly, ‘twas Sheila did most of it.

Now, she continues, pushing back her chair, who wants dessert?

She has of course just sat down to eat, having served everyone else first, leaving a smaller portion for herself, the martyr. No sacrifice too great for her family.

In truth, after a very recent slice of chocolate cake and two coffees with some friends in a swanky new café, she doesn’t have any room for the humble stew on offer, but her act of selflessness is observed by Father, who flatly rejects her self-sacrifice.

Ah no, now, he insists, sure you’re only after sitting down.

He shuffles about in the chair as if to rise himself, before issuing his command.

Sheila, get up there and see if there’s some icecream or something.

Our poor heroine’s misery is complete. She sullenly completes her dessert duties and stomps upstairs for the afternoon’s Porewatch, without the facecream she desperately needs for Ross Nelson’s heart, leaving Father to roll her eyes and sagely observe to his son in a conspiratorial tone:

That’s women for you.

Now, says the man of the house, rising with a groan, Paul, do the dishes there for your mother, while I…

The rest of the sentence is unintelligible, even to him, as he stumbles, fooddrunk and clutching his swollen belly, to the respite of an armchair to sleep off the recent feast.


In this tragic scene, there are no winners, only victims.

Well, okay, perhaps everyone but Sheila is a winner.

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