‘Catherine’ 10

15 May

After breakfast the children would have three hours of schooling, but as Catherine was nearly thirteen she had been placed with the needlework teacher, Miss Clancy, to learn a skill which would help her earn a living when she eventually re-joined the human race.   Colleen and Bernie were in the same workshop, but they were forced to communicate through signs and eye motion as they were not permitted to talk as they sewed.  It was dull, repetitive work, stitching pinafores, trousers and dresses in the high windowed room and Miss Clancy with her grey hair pulled back in a tight bun, encased in her stiff, black dress, examined every stitch made in the room, for length and alignment; ardently religious she would command them;

 ‘Stitch your prayers into the work girls, Jesus will be your salvation!’

If Miss Clancy found a wrong stitch, she would pull the whole seam out and throw the garment back for the terrified girl to begin again.  Catherine took care with her stitching and Miss Clancy left her alone, but Bernie could never get it right, and occasionally she and Catherine secretly exchanged work so that Cathy could complete a neat row of stitches for her friend.

‘You’ve save my life Cathy, so you have. Sure if old Clancy ever got a glimpse of my stitches, she’d have me hung out to dry for a heathen. There’s no sign of Jesus in my efforts with the needle so there’s not, more like the divil himself wouldn’t you say ?’

‘You could be right Bernie,’ Catherine sighed. ‘I don’t think the devil can be too far from any place where Clancy is.’

‘Don’t let her get you down Bernie.’ Colleen comforted.

The girls were working in the laundry for the afternoon, loading bales of sheets and towels into vats of boiling water, hardly able to see each other through the thick billows of steam. 

‘But I’ll never be able to sew a straight seam, so I won’t.’

 Wailed Bernie, as she wafted the relentless steam, which settled and drenched her hair and clothes and stole silently into her lungs.

Catherine and Colleen, heaved the final bale of soiled linen into the vat and pushed it down with a huge wooden dolly, then dizzy with heat the three walked to their dorm through the bitter December cold.  A feeble fire was lit in their room, but Rosie and her friends huddled before it, like crows around their prey, preventing any warmth from circulating, so they three perched on their bed to await the supper bell, but Bernadette, aching from the day’s work, soon lay down and drifted to sleep.

‘Will you come with me to see Alfie after supper Collie?

  The chapel visits were now a nightly event, during the week before Christmas.  Mr Hare had allowed Catherine to stay and watch her brother and spend a few moments with him after each practice.  Alfie was able to tell her about Billie and his friends and that at school he was doing well. 

‘We’ve been drawing Christmas pictures, and the Miss says I’ve got a talent.’

He had announced, the day before. Catherine treasured the moments with her little brother, and desperately wanted the family to be together again.

‘Of course we’ll come, sure a ticket on the ferry to Dublin wouldn’t stop us, so it wouldn’t.’

Colleen joked.

The supper bell rang and they tried to wake Bernie , but she was sleeping soundly.

‘Ah leave her be, Cathy. Supper’s nothing to sing about and she probably needs the sleep more. Let’s be off now.’

They joined the throng of inmates making their way to the canteen. Many were elderly women, husbands long dead, who were no longer of use to their grown families and had no means of support.  Others had enjoyed success in life but with their husbands or fathers forced into bankruptcy, they had no choice but to join the forlorn ranks.

 Catherine searched their faces for a spark of hope. Sometimes she would detect it in the ones for whom this was a passing dark cloud behind which the sun waited, ready to shine on a better life sometime in the future; in others she saw only resignation and no sign of the energy needed to break free.

She desperately wanted to be one of the hopeful ones, even though there were times when escape seemed impossible, she clung to the thought that somewhere beyond the high walls which enclosed them, there was someone thinking about her and her brothers.  Maud would never forget about them, that she knew for certain, and although there had been no word of her father for more than two years, she sensed he was alive and that in time he would come for them.

It was a hot supper of scouse, a dish served regularly, which contained potatoes and some fragments of meat. As the girls ate in the eerie silence which befell the room while the weak, weary and hungry inmates relished their morsel, they thought about Bernadette and both regretted the decision to let her sleep.  The hot meal would have been good for her and breakfast was such a scant affair that she would have trouble getting through the day tomorrow.

After supper they braved the cold and made their way to chapel. Mr Hare was working the choir particularly hard in preparation for the Carol Concert on Christmas Eve and the Christmas Day services.  He had insisted the boys eat well to build their strength for the effort ahead and the girls were truly impressed by the results.

Afterwards Alfie spent a few moments with them and gave Cathy three pictures he had drawn at school, one for each of them. 

‘They’re Christmas trees.’

 

He explained.

‘Like the one we had in Great Newton Street when mammy was alive, Cathy. I thought we could get one the same next year when we we’re out.’

‘We will Alfie. I promise we will.’

 She pulled her little brother close to her, and wrapped him in her arms, burying her face in his hair and trying desperately to stop herself from crying.  Where was their father?  How could he let this happen? The thoughts tormented her.

‘Next Christmas will be different Alf I promise.’

The girls were sombre as they made their way back to the dormitory.  Above them, light years away, an infinity of stars dazzled the dark December sky and a bright, full moon, beamed blue streaks of light across their cobbled path; the promise had changed their mood, and sewn a seam of determination into the fibres of each girl’s being, so straight and perfect, that Miss Clancy would be proud, and somehow they would both find a way to fulfil it.

There was a commotion in the dormitory when they arrived. 

In the lamplight of the cold room where embers of a fading fire glowed in the hearth, the girls sensed something awful as a line of pale faces turned towards them. A slither of moonlight cast its glow across the room and onto the bed where Bernie had been sleeping when they left.  It was around this bed that Rosie and her cronies were gathered, but Bernie was no longer there.

‘Where’s my sister?’

Colleen demanded, feeling sure they had done something terrible to Bernie.

‘They took her away.’

Rosie replied, reaching for Colleen and placing a hand gently on her shoulder.

‘Took her away? Sure who took her away? She’s my sister!’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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