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.








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