‘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.

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