The three child stars of The Hunger Times short film pose in front of a piece of museum artwork

T

hat's all people seem to do these days. Leave.

I opened my eyes once again to the weak light, shining in our tiny bedroom window. It had been another long sleepless night, spent worrying about my family; what's left of it anyway.

I was only 11 when the crops failed for the very first time, and it's been downhill since then. It had been a whirlwind past few weeks, with Father rarely returning home from work; then Mother falling ill, and passing away, then even Patrick — my only older sibling, my rock — leaving for America. 

That's all people seem to do these days. Leave. 

I know it's for the best, I mean I’m lucky he even survived the journey over there, but it's not like we've had much contact since. For 7 weeks I was left wondering if he'd even made it over there, and then, finally I got a letter. The very same letter, now tear stained, with ink slightly smudged, that I've read and reread a thousand times. The very same letter under my pillow at all times, only to be taken out and pored over in the dark of night, away from my younger siblings’ prying eyes. I've analysed every single meagre word on the page, searching for a hidden meaning; something — anything. It may be unfair, but it's too special to me to share, it's all I have left of him.

I wrote back almost immediately, told him all about Mother’s passing, Father’s new job, and me… all alone, but still no reply. I wonder if my letter ever found him (my innermost thoughts and feelings, which I could only ever share with my big brother), lost at sea. Perhaps he didn't know what to say, or worse even — perhaps he had nothing to say. I feel betrayed, I know that it being up to me to take care of our little family isn't fair. Don't get me wrong, I love my father dearly. I know he had to leave for the shipyard, as much as he didn't want to leave us. He works so hard to earn the little money he's rewarded, which is the only thing keeping us out of the workhouse, but it's so hard back home without him. 

I slide out of bed, and pad quietly onto the uneven stone floor, but this time; for reasons unexplained, as I was walk through the only two rooms; it suddenly hits me how lifeless the tiny building is.

Even the lightest of my footsteps echo loudly as I walk. The pitiful fire I attempted to light the night before, made only from old embers from spectacular fires Father used to light, the kind that used to keep us warm throughout the night, in winters years ago, was of course gone out. The icy morning air chills me to the bone.

It feels as if I’m walking through this house with new eyes, seeing things that had gone unnoticed before, like the permanent layer of dust that has settled over everything in Mother and Father’s bedroom, billowing around me in fleeting clouds before disappearing again, as I push open  the creaky door. This room, still left untouched although we could use the extra space, is the only thing I have to remember them by. Although, I notice now the smell of her perfume no longer lingers by the bedside, and his pillow now too ample without the indentation left from his sleeping head, I realise even this meagre room, the only thing we have to hold onto, is losing the memory of them, and I fear I am too. 

I can't make out why it hit me so hard, this one dismal morning. Perhaps it’s the dark light, barely filtering through the hazy glass of the window panes; or the frosty morning air, which seems to linger all day long. Maybe it’s just my own foul humour.  

I know soon enough I'll have to get my younger siblings up, and out to work in the freezing fields, to dig up already rotten potatoes; the only food we have to eat. I know it is nowhere near enough to keep a child alive and well, never mind three. Now Daniel’s showing signs of the fever, I don't know what to do. 

When Mother fell ill, three fleeting weeks is all the fever allowed her. 

We're running out of time, that I know. Yet the one egocentric thought, repeating in my head, again and again, is the simplest of questions. 

“Why is it I continue to fight for my breath, my life, each day?” 

What worries me most is, I can no longer find a worthy answer.

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This essay was written by Beth Power, a student at Donabate Community College. The school visited the Coming Home exhibition in April 2018 with our education partners at Fighting Words, as part of our education programme for Coming Home.