‘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,

Maud

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