‘Catherine’ 8

10 May

‘Think what it must be like to be thrown into this place alone, Colleen, like poor wee Cathy. No wonder she’s never said a word since she came.”

‘Not a word.’ agreed Bernadette. ‘And not a thing we can do about it.’

The girls were picking oakum, fingers cut and sore from the loathed chore which involved pulling old ropes apart.

‘Sure it’s her brothers she’s fretting over, especially Alfie, the wee one. If she could only see him I’m sure she’d pick up a bit. It would do her the world of good.’

‘I’m thinking we should have a word with the matron, you know Bernie. The girl will fret herself into the grave if we don’t do something.’

Minds made up, the sisters went about their task with a vigour seldom seen amongst workhouse inmates. Their hearts warmed in that cold, cheerless place, by the decision to help Catherine.

Matron dealt with numbers. Not individuals; how many mouths to feed? How many beds were needed? How many plates? How much food?… A new little girl became the ‘needer’ of another pinafore, plate, bed … How could she care about loneliness, heartbreak or pain?  Such was her mind-set when the two sisters approached with their request and they were not to know about the layers of numbers which separated the Matron  from the rest of mankind.

The two ‘needers’ were smiling as they entered the fusty little room from which the workhouse empire was ruled.  This was unusual, Matron was unaccustomed to smiles, and responded with a quizzical glare. Bernadette’s courage faltered but Colleen squeezed her hand.

‘Matron, we’ve come to tell you about a wee girl in our dormitory, Catherine Cattell.’

Matron’s glare intensified, sending cold wafts of fear through the dimly lit room. The flame haired girls stood, pale and skinny, fragile reeds poised to withstand the tumult of her anger. Colleen squeezed Bernie’s hand till it hurt.

‘Cathy shares a bed with us.’

‘How many in the bed?’

‘Five Matron.’

‘Then there’s room for another.’

She reached for the notepad attached to a string around her waist and made a note.

‘Cathy hasn’t eaten for two weeks and she cries all the time Matron.’

‘Which dormitory are you occupying?’

‘Number ten.’

Bernadette began to feel hopeful. Matron was taking notes and showing an interest in Catherine.

‘Are there any more beds in there with less than six occupants?’

‘I don’t know Matron.’

‘We need another count.’

‘Cathy could be dying matron. We think she’s very ill.’

‘What’s her name again?’

‘Catherine Cattell.’

‘Cattell? Ah yes, two brothers occupying a bed in the male quarters. Three Cattells in all.’

‘That’s right Matron. She misses her little brothers so she does. We thought if she could see them she might …’

‘Chapel.’

‘Matron?

’ Colleen was beginning to despair.

‘Take her to the Chapel. I believe there’s a Cattell in the choir.’

She dismissed the girls and hurried to find the janitor.

A bed count was needed.

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