‘Catherine’ 9

11 May

Mr Hare stood before the little group of choristers, pleased with their efforts in the damp, draughty  chapel as they sang ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ in preparation for the Christmas concert due to happen in two weeks’ time, when the big wigs would gather as well as many of the inmates, on Christmas Eve .  It was a bitter sweet event which often tore at the emotions of the paupers, many of whom had enjoyed past Christmas’ in better circumstances, and he was aware of the fact that the voices of his gang of scraggy urchins had the power to melt the hardest of hearts.

In the half-light, he pondered, the boys’ faces, which in the harsh light of day, carried scars of the hard knocks life had thrown at them, but were almost angelic as they sang their favourite carol. When they reached the last verse, he became aware of something odd, stirring amongst them as they began to nudge each other and look beyond him into the shadowy enclaves of the chapel.  As he studied their faces for clues, he noticed something very strange in the ranks.  There on the front row, he saw that sad Alfie was smiling!

The three girls sat together on a hard wooden bench, which offered no degree of physical comfort, but the sight of her little brother looking well and smiling, gave Catherine all the comfort she needed. Mr Hare did not prevent Alfie running to her at the end of practice and the two hugged each other so hard it hurt.

‘Now Cathy, to be sure you can stop worrying about wee Alfie.  He’s in fine fettle.’

Bernie sang, imitating the choristers, as they made their way back to the dormitory still hand in hand.

They laughed at her effort to hold a note.

‘I’ll never, ever forget what you two did for us.’

Catherine said, her face alight with joy and her voice reflecting the passion she felt for the girls and their kindness.

‘Ah go on wit’ya Cathy. We only did what’s right.  You’d have done the same for us, so you would.’

Colleen put her arm around Catherine’s shoulder and the three happy workhouse inmates skipped back to the fire lit dorm as if they were living in a palace.

Alfie ran back to the boys’ quarters, grinning from ear to ear to tell Billy the news. He found him with his gang of friends, talking about the ships at the Pier Head and impressing them with his knowledge of all things nautical. His stories served to distract them from the misery of their plight and also planted the seed of desire for a life at sea in many of their shipwrecked lives.

‘I saw Cathy!’

He bellowed, much to the annoyance of the gathering.  They turned to Alfie. He was flushed with excitement after the run back to Billy and looked different from the boy who had left them two hours earlier.

‘Cathy who?’

Georgie Gibbs queried, reluctant to switch his thoughts from a life at sea with Billy, to the matter of a girl he didn’t even know.

‘My sister,’

Said Billy, trying to hide his elation from the boys who, he knew, admired him. Losing control of his emotions would seem unmanly. Being responsible for Alfie since they had been left in the workhouse had forced him to grow up sooner than he would have chosen, and he was sensitive enough to know how badly Alfie was suffering, but although he had looked for ways to cheer him up, he knew that only Catherine could manage that, or better still, their father.

Billy left his friends and went to Alfie.

‘She came to choir practice.’

‘You mean she’s in the choir too?’

Billy responded, genuinely astonished by the thought.

‘No stupid! She came to watch me and she was with two girls, not alone.’

Alfie’s words tumbled out, putting an end to weeks of sorrow.

Billy was so relieved to hear this that in spite of his friends watching, he gave his little brother a hug and ruffled his hair in celebration.  The other boys, for a brief moment, dropped the manly facades, nodding and smiling at each other, extracting fragments of long lost joy from their friends’ happiness.

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