Archive | June, 2012

Maa as-salaamah Bahrain ….. Goodbye Bahrain

29 Jun


School finished yesterday after the usual end of term flurry.  My colleagues are now heading to their various far flung homes and our bags are packed in wait for the 3.00 am taxi to the airport.   First stop Abu Dhabi, then on to Manchester and some dubious weather.

The past three weeks were notable for the arrival of my daughter Fionuala, whose 2.1 degree result gave us an excuse to splash out on a bottle of Champaign.  We had a weekend in Dubai and managed to squash in all the sightseeing we planned, including a trip up the Burj Khalifa, famous for being the tallest building in the world and for Tom Cruise abseiling down in ‘Mission Impossible’.

So for now it’s back to little Cotehill with gardening on my mind. 

However, I will be returning at the end of August to tackle my new role as Head of Elementary English, and as it will be my sixtieth year on the planet I intend to make it a special one.

  There will be a blog!

Thank you for reading this one xxxx





‘Catherine’ 15

16 Jun

‘If you were given two wishes for Christmas Colleen, what would they be?’

‘Well now. The obvious one would be to get out of this place.’

Colleen’s expansive gesture made Catherine smile.

‘But, sure, it’s not a possibility today.  I think we need two wishes we can actually make true. What do you think, my friend?’

‘And what would they be?’

‘Well now, there just happen to be two people we both want to see, and it might just be possible to do so.  What about we sneak into the infirmary and wish Bernie a happy Christmas, then wait at the cobbled yard gate to see if Maud arrives?’

Catherine thought for a while, observing the weary women gathered in the dusty room beneath festive paper chains made by the inmates and hung around the workhouse, yellow, purple and scarlet, unusual colours in the institution where brown, black and white dominated the landscape.

She was surprised to find the colours reviving memories of much happier times at home with mammy and daddy. She recalled a purple dress mammy often wore for best and the scarlet velvet dress daddy bought for her fifth birthday.   The incongruence of their presence in that place had the effect of pouring vinegar onto the wound. ‘This is what you had.’ They said. ‘This is what you lost.’

‘Let’s do it!’  She finally ventured, feeling there was nothing else to lose ‘If we go now to the Infirmary, we should be able to make the gate at four o’clock.’

The City of Liverpool was fighting a losing battle with the monstrous killer, tuberculosis, which visited most households irrespective of class. There were also frequent outbreaks of typhoid, and many bronchial diseases caused by the polluted smog that frequently stood immovable and unwelcome around the streets and docklands.  Wards in the infirmary were filled with the sick and dying sufferers, and those who worked there were also at risk of contracting a contagious death sentence.

As part of the workhouse complex, the entrance could be accessed by inmates, but visitors were not allowed, besides which only the foolish or desperate would want to enter. The girls slipped into the lobby without challenge.  There was only a minimum of staff present, and they had no time to guard doors.

They knew that Gertie worked on the Itch Ward and hoped to find her there, but the size of the place was overwhelming and they were soon lost amid a warren of stairwells and endless corridors,

‘We’ll never find our way out of here Cathy. So we won’t.’ Colleen declared, genuinely worried.

They peered into wards where row upon row of beds yielded little comfort to their skeletal occupants. Catherine noticed the obligatory paper chains hanging limply amidst the misery; miniscule attempts at cheer.

For almost thirty minutes they continued their awful journey, witnessing sights that would haunt them throughout their young lives.  They reached the fifth floor, spent with exertion and nausea, when Catherine saw a sign directing them to the Itch Ward.

‘This is it Collie. Now what?’

Before Catherine had time to challenge her, Colleen pushed open the door and strode in, as if she had done so every day of her life. Within seconds of doing so, the nausea increased as she was unprepared for the sight of people terrorised by skin diseases which gave no respite.  Catherine, less bold, crept in and stood shivering beside her.  Their appearance brought a welcome distraction from the monotony of the day, and eyebrows rose around the ward.

‘I think you might be lost.’

There was amusement in the tone of the voice which eventually emerged from a shadowy corner of the room.  Laughter, instantaneous and unanimous sprang from long untapped depths of submerged humour as the patients studied the two terrified young girls who looked as if they had entered a den of lions.

To their relief, Gertie, startled by the strange behaviour of her patients came running from the nurses’ office.

‘What’s ‘appening ere?’ She exploded, her yellow face turning a mild shade of pink.

‘What in evan’s name are you two doin’ ‘ere?’

‘We want to see Bernadette, Gertie.  It’s Christmas day and I want to see my sister.’

‘What do you think this is? An ‘otel?’

There was laughter around the ward again and the girls were mortified. Catherine saw that Collie was close to tears and she wanted to run fast to get away from the spectacle of their disgrace.

‘Where is she?’ The voice from the corner queried.

‘Catherine’ 14

2 Jun

Inside the chapel Mr Hare’s ragged choir delivered their songs to a forlorn congregation, but Alfie, perched on an unsteady bench, had a clear view of his sister, who smiled proudly, like a mother watching her child at a school concert. Catherine saw that he was glancing from her to another area of the chapel and following his lead, looked across the aisle to where the men stood, a weary collection of skin and bones who at first glance were identical, wearing the same workhouse clothes, but to her delight and looking directly back at her from the end of the adjacent pew, was Billy, beaming.  Seeing his cheerful face was like a balm.

‘That’s our Billy over there.’

She whispered, nudging Colleen and twitching her head in his direction.

Colleen glanced across and found Billy, still grinning and looking directly at her, he was pointing to the person next to him, and when Colleen met the gaze of the tall, shock haired man beside him, her knees gave way and to Catherine’s horror she collapsed onto the bench.

‘Collie! What is it?’

‘It’s me da.’

Colleen uttered, as Catherine helped her up.  The people round them unperturbed by the drama, droned on with a melancholy rendering of ‘Away in a Manger’.

Paddy McGuire had endowed his children with his own good looks, and stood out amongst the inmates as a man passing through.  Shocked by the unexpected sighting, Colleen noticed a drastic weight loss in her once strong and powerfully built father, but she nevertheless, saw that he was in good spirits as he winked across at her.

After the service, the strict rules of segregation were relaxed so that family members could have a brief reunion, before being herded back to their respective blocks.

The only warmth outside emanated from the lips of the cruelly separated men, women and children.

‘Da; have you heard about Bernie?’

Colleen cried as she reached for his hand, slithering unsteadily on the icy cobbles.

‘I have, to be sure, Coll.’

Paddy held her close to him.

‘They let me see herthis  morn’n, so they did, and you’ve not to worry, she’ll be well enough, soon enough.  What about youself?’

‘I’m grand now I’ve seen you da. This is Cathy Cattell, my great friend.’

‘Billy and Alfie’s big sister, to be sure.’

Catherine, Billy and Alfie were standing together, the boys encircled by Catherine’s embrace.

‘They’re  brave little fellas Cathy, don’t be worrying your head about the boys now.  I have a note for you from Bernie.’

To Catherine and Colleen’s surprise, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a grimy piece of folded paper.

‘She said I was to pass it to you. A bit of a strange girl called Anne had been calling your name around the wards, and sure, when Birnie said she knew you, she gave her this note.  Bernie didn’t want Gertie the nurse to have it as she thinks it’s important, so she was saving it to give you herself,  but I told her I was going to the chapel for the carols with the hope of seeing you both, so she left it with me’.

The call went out for them to return to their quarters.  Catherine took the mysterious note from Paddy’s huge hand and held it tight in her palm; she felt the time was not right to read it.  Before they parted, Paddy took Colleen by the shoulders.

‘Collie, my leg’s healed now, so it has, and I’ve been out looking for work.  There’s plenty of it down at the docks and I’ll be leaving this God forsaken place soon.’

Colleen’s blue eyes filled with tears, which spilled onto her abundantly freckled, ice cold cheeks.

‘  I’ll come and fetch you when I find a place to live, my pretty wee girl, so don’t fret. ‘

The wardens, having exhausted their ration of Christmas cheer, moved in to herd them away, so they said their goodbyes, carefully negotiating the treacherous terrain as darkness fell on Christmas Eve.

It wasn’t until they reached their dorm that Cathy was able to unfurl the damp wedge of paper and in a softly golden lamplight could just make out the words of the note.

‘My dearest Catherine,

Do not despair; I wait at the cobbled yard gate to see you every afternoon at four o’clock.

I think your daddy has returned.

Your beloved cousin,