Archive | September, 2013

Colleen and Bernadette Say Goodbye

30 Sep

‘Sure it won’t be for long Cathy.  I know me da’ will do something to help you and your brothers so he wiil.’

Bernie and Colleen were leaving the Workhouse.  The New Year had brought good news for their father, who had been given work as a navvie    He had found lodgings in a shared house on Scotland Road near the Docks and was ready to gather his family around him.

‘We’ll be at the gate for you every day Catherine. Be sure of that. I didn’t think I’d have regrets about leaving this place, but saying goodbye to you is truly hard.’

Colleen wiped away a tear. They were gathered in front of a meagre fire which flickered forlornly in the dormitory hearth.  Matron would be collecting the sisters as soon as their father arrived and the formalities finalised.

‘I’ll think about you every day, whatever I’m doing here, I’ll think about how we did everything together and how you cheered me up.’  Catherine’s pallid features, flanked by strands of fine fair hair reflected the helplessness of her situation. For her there was no way out, no father working hard to bring his family home, only a lost, rumour of a man who Maud saw standing in the shadows, and who may just as easily have been a figment of Maud’s imagination.

‘Right lasses, yer dad’s ‘ere for you. Get yer stuff and say goodbye to the Werkouse.’

The girls hugged and left their friend, as the freedom they longed for beckoned, while their hearts felt heavy with sorrow for Catherine.


She couldn’t bring herself to go to the gate, did not want to see her friends on the other side watching her, and the days were filled with the mechanics of a meaningless life.  The routine became a vortex and sucked her energy so that she no longer went to watch Alfie in the choir. She got up in the dark, cold mornings, picked oakum till her fingers bled and returned to bed in the cold dark night.

It was Gertie the nurse who broke through the cocoon within which Catherine was entrenched.

January brought milder weather and a welcome thaw rid weary streets and houses of the hardened crust of snow which seemed to have become a permanent feature.  Gertie found Catherine in the oakum yard, her callused hands tugging at a thick length of old rope to separate the fibres which would eventually be put to use for stuffing pillows for workhouse inmates to rest their heads.

‘There you are girlie!’  Gertie bellowed, ‘’Yer a ‘ard one to find.’

‘I’m here every day Gert.’ Catherine responded.  There was something about  Gertie that lifted her spirits.  The woman led a truly miserable existence and yet she emanated a stubborn resilience to hardship and managed, in her rough, gruff way to remain as a cheerful beacon of light on a fog laden horizon.

 ‘Well me girlie. I’ve come with some news for you from ‘elen in the itch ward.’


‘She what knows yer dad.’

‘Is that her name Gert. I didn’t know. So what’s the news?’

Catherine’s cocoon was not about to be so easily penetrated. 

‘She says yer to look in the Crown on Lime Street. But be quick because ‘e’s got a ticket to America.’

‘And how am I s’posed to do that?’

‘Not my problem girlie. Tara!’

Girtie swooped out as swiftly as she had swooped in and the cocoon had weakened just a fraction.








The Girls on the Step

30 Sep

The gas lighter was doing his rounds and glanced at them piteously as he passed. Catherine was reminded of the time she had passed the same gate with her mammy and daddy, many years earlier in what seemed to be another life and was shocked at the sight of two sorrowful girls peering out at her.  Now she and Colleen stood in their place.





Liverpool had hardly noticed his return as the population shivered and slithered through that cold December, but for John, the decision to leave Knowle, where Mary had gently restored him back to health, had been one of the hardest he had made.  He was sure his children were in good hands, being cared for by Mary Ellen’s family.  They had no need for him, the father who deserted them, who should have been strong for them.  But he needed to see them at least once more.

On his return he had found work with a shipping line, creating posters to advertise their ships’ passage.  A ship called ‘The Liverpool Lady’ was due to leave for New York in January.  A new life in America was appealing and he had decided to buy a ticket as soon as the company paid him, but he knew he could not leave England without seeing his children.  A glimpse would suffice, no more than a glimpse.

As he watched the girls on the step from the shadows, time melted and the two year separation could have been no more than two weeks.  Catherine had not changed.  Maud had grown and seemed so much more mature, but his Catherine was just as he remembered her.  He waited for a while but there was no sign of Billy or little Alfie, and when Maud appeared to look in his direction, he moved away, satisfied that Catherine, at least was safe.

He had found lodgings in a Temperance boarding house near the River and spent his evenings amongst the myriad of hopefuls arriving with carpet bags and pathetic boxes of belongings, ready to board a steamer to America.  The scene at the Pier Head was festive, with fires burning in braziers, tin whistlers livening up the night while drunken sailors and Irish famine fugitives danced beneath the silver moon, which all too soon would watch them dance on a far away shore.

He knew a bit about the passage to America, and the risks these people faced, but he knew also that the sweet scent of hope was enough to carry them forward, in spite of the dangers at sea.

He watched young sailors preparing the ships’ rigging and sails and thought about Billy. He would be fourteen now, old enough to go to sea.  Would he be amongst these lads?  He was afraid he may see him and not know him, his own son. He was afraid that Billy would not want to know him and the thoughts often led him to the bars he once frequented, filled with painful memories. 

Once an old acquaintance recognised him;

‘John Cattell!  Are you a ghost? We thought you were long dead.’

‘Not yet.’ John smiled.

‘Good to know it. There’s enough death around without you joining the ranks.’

John moved on, not wanting the intimacy of conversation.

Every evening he looked for Billy.  Knowing he was unlikely to find him amongst the crowds but the fantasy of a joyous reunion would not leave him.   Then, thinking about the girls on the step, and his bewilderment at Catherine’s unchanged appearance,     he felt a truth creeping in through the frost and freezing darkness of night.  The little girl was not Catherine.