Catherine of Liverpool

15 Nov

Chapter 1

Catherine felt a chill as they crossed the threshold, and pulled her thin, grey shawl tightly around her shoulders.

The boys were fooling around as usual, noisy and annoying.

‘Stop it!’ She pleaded.

Her younger brother Billy, paused briefly, breathless and bright eyed after racing Alfie up the street.   He was gleefully unaware of the situation and after a brief glance around the sparse, cold hallway, kicked his little brother Alfie up the backside and resumed their play fight.

‘Stop it Billy! Can’t you see what’s happening?’

She felt helpless, as usual when her brothers behaved this way.   Auntie Lizzie, forlornly draped in a long, loose fitting black coat, looked resigned, and resolute;   but Catherine hoped for a change of heart.  If the boys would stop their silly behaviour, Auntie Lizzie might turn around and they could all go home.

To be fair, they hadn’t been told what was to happen that day.  Catherine knew.   Twelve years of age, and the oldest of the children, she had grown up quickly; mothering the boys through years of turmoil.

Aunt Lizzie perched nervously on the single wooden bench, worn and splintered, like the lives of those to whom it lent support.    Catherine battled her feelings of hatred towards the tired woman, whose grey, mournful eyes reflected the destitution faced by so many of Liverpool’s struggling poor.  For in the fading, pretty features of Aunt Lizzie, she could perceive her own mother.

She found it easy to unravel the string of circumstances which had led them to this place and return in her mind, to Great Newton Street, where their home had been when mam was alive.  The kitchen stove blazing, daddy reading in his armchair and mammy busy baking at the sturdy wooden table, centrepiece of many a family gathering, were vivid fragments of her memories of home.   There was warmth in the past, many smiles and a lot of love.  But as the man behind the dark oaken desk peered down at her, his long yellow face extracted the warmth and chilled her soul. She feared this man in the dark, cold room, and more than anything she feared what lay beyond the doors separating this room from the rest of the Liverpool Workhouse.

Chapter 2


The Cattells moved into their house on Great Newton Street a few weeks before Alfie’s birth and it was a rush to get everything ready. Ann Marie’s sister Lizzie and her husband Denis lived a few doors away and were a great help since her husband  John worked long hours as a  printer for the Liverpool Echo.

Catherine spent hours entertaining Billy while mammy got the house straight and Auntie Lizzie popped round often with pans of scouse and freshly baked bread. One such day they were busy together in the kitchen polishing brasses and folding away starched white sheets and pillow cases which had been through the wash the day before;

‘Well the house is starting to look lovely Ann Marie; you’ve done a great job.’ Lizzie pronounced hanging a shiny brass engraving of a ship at sea, up above the fireplace and stepping back to check her handiwork.

‘I couldn’t have managed without your help Liz, and thank God it’s ready to bring the baby into.’

‘Yes and our Maud can’t stop talking about having Catherine to play with; they’re so close in age, like us Annie. They’ll be the best of friends.’

Anne Marie glanced at Lizzie, trying hard not to laugh at her sister’s remark and remembering the fierce quarrels they had over the slightest thing when they were younger.  ‘The best of friends ‘, was not the term she would have chosen to describe their relationship, but times had changed and although she could still be irritated by Lizzie’s fussy ways, they were closer than ever now, and she agreed that Maud and Catherine were destined to be as close as sisters.

The two story terraced house, with its parlour and large kitchen felt pleasantly welcoming to the steady flow of visitors as Ann Marie and John awaited the birth.  They had moved from a house near the docks, which had a family in each of its eight rooms. It was noisy and filthy, with a shared lavatory in the back yard and one water tap for the whole street, but John had a steady job and worked hard to save enough to rent a house of their own. It was a cold November evening when Ann Marie put the children to bed and told John to call the midwife.

Jenny Steel lived just round the corner.  A robust, efficient woman, who had delivered most of the children in the neighbourhood, as well as their mums and dads, she arrived with her black bag and a huge smile.  To Jenny every new baby was special. Ann Marie’s father Callum and stepmother, Margaret, had called round from their house on Peach Street and stayed to wait with John.   Lizzie and Denis joined the group in the parlour as Ann Marie’s cries alerted the neighbours to the imminent birth.

And so it was that Alfred Alfonse was born into heart of the City which was to be his home for almost ninety years and into the heart of a family for whom there would be no lasting peace.

‘You have a beautiful boy John!’ Jenny announced.

‘But I have some concern for Ann Marie. I think you should fetch a doctor.’

‘I’ll come with you,’ Cullum offered, bringing John, now in shock, to his senses and the two men rushed into the cold, gas lit November night.

Ann Marie was Callum’s daughter from his marriage to Fay, his Irish darling who died soon after giving birth to her.  He had come to Liverpool from Killarney with Lizzie and Ann Marie to escape the ravages of the Irish famine and find work. As she grew, Anne Marie came to resemble her mother, and though Callum married Margaret when Anne Marie was four years old, he would never forget Fay, and in his youngest daughter he saw a striking resemblance, with her pale blue eyes and chestnut curls.

John had also suffered the loss of his first wife in Knowle, his home town, something he had kept to himself since arriving in Liverpool eight years earlier, but as he knocked at the door of the doctor’s house, on Abercrombie Square, long buried memories surfaced and the fear of yet another loss began to take hold.

Chapter 3

Dr. Clegg emerged from the bedroom, having examined Anne Marie, while the family sat subdued around the kitchen table and Catherine and Billy slept soundly upstairs, blissfully unaware of the drama.

‘You can go in now John.  She’ll pull through.’

He smiled gently and pushed his half-moon spectacles up the bridge of his nose while John hugged him and the tension evaporated.

Anne Marie cradled the baby, as John moved close to her. She was exhausted, but he could see there was enough spirit left to bring her back to them.

‘Look at our fine boy John. He’s the image of you.’

John took the child and held him close.

‘Dear God Ann. I thought you were at death’s door!’

‘Well you thought wrong didn’t you? Do you honestly think I’d leave you all? I’ve a little lad needs a mammy, as well as his brother and sister, and I’ve a husband, needs a wife. I’m going nowhere!’

By Christmas Anne Marie was well enough to walk out with her family. John proudly pushed the pram while Catherine and Billy clutched their mother’s hands as they made their way to Peach Street to visit their grandparents.

The walk would take them along Brown Low Hill, past the Workhouse, a towering monster of a building which stood as a bleak warning to those who were audacious enough to fall upon hard times.  They would catch the occasional glimpse of inmates. Women clothed in dreary, identical dresses, and bearded men in overalls.

‘Not a pick of flesh on them.’

Anne Marie whispered, disturbed at the sight of two little girls standing in a gated yard,

‘It’s a terrible place to end up; especially at Christmas.’

‘Their only crime is poverty’ said John.

The girls at the gate watched as the family passed by and Catherine tightened her grip around mammy’s hand. Their presence seemed like a threat to her safety and she wanted to pass that place and rid her mind of the image, although it would remain and resurface in the bleakness of her future.


As Catherine stood beside Auntie Lizzie, her fear was extreme.

Elizabeth, small and frail now, quietly waited her turn in the draughty room, watching a line of feeble people as they whispered their plight to the grim man behind the desk. She was weary and not sure she had the strength to do what she had come to do. Who would want to? Who would want to commit three little ones to the Workhouse? She had agonized for weeks before today, but it had to be done.  Money was short and it was a struggle to feed her own children, let alone three extra. And yet these were Anne Marie’s babies, and her heart was breaking. She gripped Catherine’s hand. Her gentle niece stood silent; pale as lilies.

The poker thin man beckoned them and with startling efficiency inscribed their names in a book almost as big as Alfie. Auntie Lizzie signed the book and they were lead away. Bereft, she watched the children go and not a night would pass without Catherine creeping into her dreams with the look in her eyes that Lizzie saw before the door closed.

Chapter 4


Catherine loved to spend time with her brothers at the Pier Head, watching the massive Liners, brim full of people, glide away from the harbour, carrying thousands of hopefuls to their promised land.

‘One day I’ll do that.’

Billy would say, with such certainty that no-one ever doubted him. Like many a Liverpool boy he was fascinated by the mystery surrounding the ships and curious to know the places they had been. While Billy dreamed of boarding a ship and sailing away, Catherine longed to sweep the sky, like the seagulls. She envied the ease with which they would glide and dip to catch fish churned up by the motion of the vessels as they navigated the River Mersey.

Lately the children had been spending more and more time at the Pier Head. At ten, Catherine was old enough to sense that all was not well at home. Billy and Alfie were content enough to be sent off with a penny each and big sister to look out for them, but Catherine was worried. The happy home life they once enjoyed was no more, and she wished she could tell Maud her fears, but they were too deep to find a voice.

As her auntie had predicted, she and Maud became best friends and with only a year between them they enjoyed playing together, skipping up and down Great Newton Street as horse drawn carriages bumped along the cobbled road.

To look at, the girls were as different as you could imagine.  Maude had long dark curls, rosie cheeks and brown eyes, in contrast to her cousin’s grey-blue eyes and lank fair hair.  Catherine felt safe with her cousin who was always full of ideas for games to play, and she had not wanted her worries to encroach upon the happy times they spent together.  One day she fell over in the street, cutting her knee.

‘Come on Cathy. Let’s get you home.’ Maude said oozing sympathy,

‘I’ll take myself.’  She had insisted, distraught.

‘I’ll come and tell your mam what happened.’

‘No, Maudie. I’ll go myself!’

She shrugged off her cousin’s helping hand and limped home alone.  Looking back at Maude as she reached the steps of her house, she felt guilty for treating her that way, but could not allow her to see what had become of home, and mam would not have wanted her to bring anyone in.  She had lived like this for months now, hiding the secret, trying to be normal.

Chapter 5

Anne Marie had been ill for some time.

‘She looks like a ghost!’

Margaret had told Callum as they lay in bed one damp October night.  It had been raining all day and the wind was rattling the windows.  Little pools of water formed on window ledges as the misery outside began to encroach on their living space.

‘It’s been a while since I was there and no sign of a visit from them, so I thought I’d call in. I couldn’t believe my eyes when she opened the door, Callum, she’s so thin and very pale, not right.’

‘How long’s she been that way?’

‘God knows. She acted like all was well, said she felt fine, just a bit tired, and told me to stop fussin’.’

‘You’re ill,’ I said, ‘and you’ve to see a doctor!’

‘And will she?’

‘She said not. Said she’s just tired, but any mother with three young children would be.’

‘What did John have to say?’

‘That’s another thing Call. There was no sign of John. I said I was going to have words with him and Ann Marie says she hardly sees him!’

‘Doesn’t sound like John,’

‘I know love, but Annie said the children haven’t seen him for weeks. He leaves first light and comes home when they’re asleep in their beds.’

‘I’ll go round first thing, Mag.’

Callum had very little sleep that night and was at Ann Marie’s door early next day.  Bright autumn leaves splashed colour on the grey cobbled roads and the air was fresh and clean after the rain, but Callum’s senses were aware only of his daughter’s plight.  When she answered the door he could see that his precious girl was gravely ill.

‘Hello daddy.’

She knew his heart would break to see her like this.

He took her skeletal frame in his arms and carried her to the doctor’s house.  Anne Marie hadn’t the strength to struggle.

‘Will you do something for her Doctor?’ He pleaded.

Doctor Clegg, irritated by the early morning intrusion, softened at the sight of the young woman before him. It was obvious to both men that Anne Marie was a dying woman. The consumption had reached its final stages.

‘I would say it’s a matter of weeks Callum. Take her home and make her comfortable. I’ll be round with something to ease the pain’

As Anne Marie’s life ebbed, John sought comfort in whiskey. Consumption had taken his first wife. He knew the symptoms and couldn’t bear to watch Anne Marie fall victim to its ravages. He stopped going home, spending hours in bars, unable to accept the truth of his situation. Catherine did what she could.

‘Come home dad.’

She would plead as he left for work.

‘Mammy needs you.’

‘I’ll be home Cathy, but it’ll be late. You look after your brothers now.’

The door would close, leaving Catherine standing in the cold hallway, afraid. She had not known fear before now, secure within her family and trusting her mother and father to provide all she needed, but everything was changing. More and more she was left to care for the boys. She washed clothes, lit the fire and made soup every day. She tried to discipline the boys but they ignored her and ran wild most of the time.

‘You’re not our mammy.’

Billy would say, as he continued his endless tormenting of Alfie, who was usually happy to join in, but often came off worse when his big brother got too rough.

‘Leave him alone. Billy!  He’s smaller than you and you should stop when he tells you to.’

Billy was a live wire, never still and boundlessly energetic.  Maud’s dark curls and robust complexion were mirrored in his features, while Alfie shared Catherine’s fair skin and delicate frame.

Sometimes, when John arrived home very late, Catherine would climb into bed beside her mammy, holding her hand as she listened to the laboured breathing of the sick woman. She wanted to stay close, and hoped that soon her mammy would get better and daddy come home again for tea and she would dance for him by the fireside, the way she did when everything was perfect.

One night she fell asleep beside her mother and was not disturbed by her daddy’s late arrival. He had spent the night away from them. Catherine and her brothers scoured the streets searching for him. They asked around the local pubs and his place of work, but it transpired he had not been there for weeks.

It was the next day their Grandma called to the house and found Anne Marie so ill. The day after that, their Granddad took her to the Doctors. When he brought their mammy home he carried her to bed and there she remained.

The children stopped looking for their father and stayed at home. Other family members arrived at the house and stayed with them. Auntie Lizzie, Grandma and Granddad stayed through the night and people they had never seen before arrived from Ireland. They sat around Anne Marie’s bed remembering good times and singing Celtic melodies that brought a smile to her face. A priest came to give her the Last Rites, and the house held its breath, waiting for the moment Anne Marie would breathe her last.

During this time Catherine was allowed to be a child again. The adults took responsibility and she spent time with Maud, who did her best to comfort her as they sat on the front steps of the house, too sad for play.

‘I wish daddy was here.’

‘I know.’ said Maud.  ‘Your mammy needs him.’

‘We all need him.’

Catherine murmured, studying the busy street for a sighting of her father, but the autumn mist which had descended on the City offered no hope, as barefoot urchins chased opulent carriages passing to and from London Road, and clusters of laughing people went about their day, Catherine and Maud held hands and waited.

Anne Marie died early one Sunday morning. Her father, Callum was keeping vigil. The family gathered to be with her as she passed, and witnessed her last breath as she spoke the name of her beloved.


Chapter 6


Mary bustled around the shop arranging freshly baked, warm bread and spiced buns ready for opening time in five minutes. Her shop was the most popular bakers in the area, and Mary prided herself the best window display for miles.

Jimmy, her Grandson had just finished the nightshift, leaving the store room packed with enough bread, cakes and pastries for the day. The queue was already forming outside as early shoppers arrived to claim the freshest goods. Saturday was the big day for fancy cakes, which would grace the table at Sunday tea-time and the colourful display looked a treat. Before long Kate, Mary’s daughter would arrive to help behind the counter. But, as Mary raised the window blind that morning, she was unprepared for what she saw. Through the green, mottled glass appeared the distorted face of her son John.

Mary threw her arms around him, although she sensed his return was not a joyful one. No words were spoken except to establish that John needed sleep, Mary sent him upstairs to the apprentice quarters, where there was a bed, and carried on the business of the day, wondering all the while, what dreadful events had brought him home in this state.

Liverpool 1888

As the door closed Catherine watched Aunt Lizzie’s drawn, grey countenance, hoping even then for a change of heart, until the barrier separated them. They had reached the other side and were now inmates of the Liverpool Workhouse.

‘William and Alfonse Cattell, follow me.’

A young girl stood in the shadows, not much older than Catherine but wizened and haggard beyond her years. The boys were quiet now.

The girl set off along the dark corridor which tapered into the distance like the throat of a huge monster. Sensing Alfie’s fear Catherine held his hand.

‘C’mon Alfie. You’ll be alright; I’m here to look after you.’

The girl stopped and turned abruptly.

‘No, not you.You ‘ave to wait.’

Catherine felt her throat constrict,

‘Wait for what?’

‘Someone else‘ll fetch you. You’ll be in the women’s block.’

The girl’s abruptness provided no comfort for Catherine, whose devastation was now complete.

‘But these are my little brothers! I ‘ave to stay with them. I look after them. My mammy said I ‘ave to.’

‘Sorry luv, boys and girls separate. C’mon yous two.’

Alfie’s hand tightened around Catherine’s.

‘Not without Cathy.’

‘Listen to me lad!’

The girl bullied, poking Alfie’s chest.

‘Yer in the Workhouse now an whether you like it or not, you an’ yer sister say goodbye ‘ere an’ now!’

Terror gripped Catherine as the rope of a girl, forced Alfie from her and dragged him along the dismal corridor as he howled while Billy sobbed. Two older women emerged from a door at the end of the corridor and engulfed the children, leaving Catherine alone.

Lizzie went home and wept ‘till her eyes swelled.

‘What’s the point Lizzie?’

Her husband Denis had been prepared for this, but he was a practical man and saw no good come of fretting over things that can’t be helped.

‘You weren’t there Den. You didn’t see their faces as I walked away. Poor Cathy’ll be all alone in there. Poor, lovely Cathy.

’‘There was no other way Liz!  I couldn’t see my own children starve and my wife destroyed. We’ve done our best Lizzie. Your father’s ill and your mother needs rest. Since Anne Marie died you’ve all fallen apart. The children are better off there; they’ll be fed and clothed. That’s an end to it Lizzie. Now look to your own children.’

Lizzie wiped her eyes. She knew he was right, but that didn’t make it easier. The only solution would be for their father to return, but after two years the likelihood of that happening seemed remote.

Chapter 7

Liverpool 1989

Seagulls swooped beneath the slate great sky, stark, white wings captured by a stray sunbeam. Alfie watched them fly above the Workhouse and knew they were bound for the Pier Head. He tried to recall the scene that had once been so familiar, white sails, networks of ropes and pulleys, ships with curious names that Catherine would read to him,‘The Spice Queen’, ‘The Dawn Rose’,‘The Molly Baggins’. They used to play at spotting boats and just as the swallows would fly away for winter and return in the early spring, so the boats would come and go with surprising regularity.  Billy would always know when one was due back and worry if it was late.

‘The sea can be like a terrible monster.’

He would say to Alfie, as they lay in bed.

‘It can gobble you up and take you to its dark, deep depths. Never to be seen again.’

Alfie would lie awake afraid the sea would find him.  But Billie wasn’t put off by such possibilities, and would sleep soundly dreaming about his life on the waves.

Alfie had lost his boisterous, mischievous ways. The Workhouse routine left no time for play and life had become a serious affair.  For days he had been unable to eat.  He thought about Catherine who would be worried and lonely.

Days passed and the daily routine wearied him. He and William had tried to find a way to their sister, but the rules of separation were strict and impossible to penetrate. One night in a fitful sleep he saw his mother just as he remembered her when she was well. She waved to him and smiled gently. She was so vivid he thought he might touch her and reached out his hand, but the image faded and he awoke to the cold, hard bed. He recalled the dream next day and smiled at the memory as he swept the workshop floor.

From time to time the Choirmaster would scour the Workhouse for children who might be included in the Choir and it was discovered that Alfie had a good singing voice.  Consequently he was enlisted and from then on his life changed for the better. The choir had special treatment; they were frequently on show to visitors and needed to look clean and healthy. It would never do for one of the little singing ‘angels’ to collapse from starvation.

That he could sing had come as a surprise to Alfie and his new found talent offered some respite from his sadness. Mr. Hare, the choirmaster, although demanding, was a kind old man who had a gentle way about him. He sensed that young Alfie, the new boy, was bewildered by his circumstances and tried his best to elicit some cheer from the child.

‘Smile little Alfie Cattell.’

He would sing, to the tune of whatever hymn they were currently practicing.

‘Have mercy on us, oh Great Lord and make small Alfie smile.’

The other boys found this hilarious, but no smiles were extracted from Alfie.

‘He misses his sister Sir.’.

announced one of the older boys, a friend of Billy, who had asked him to keep an eye on Alfie.

‘She’s his big sister and he misses her something terrible.’

Chapter 8

Weeks had passed since Catherine was torn from her brothers, and she remained unresponsive to those around her. So withdrawn was she that even the hardened women of the workhouse softened in an effort to revive her heavy spirits.

‘The poor girl! She’s like the walking’ dead; I don’t expect she’ll be with us long so I don’t.’

‘I think you’re right Bernie.’ Colleen declared.

‘I think we’ve to do something to help her.’

Bernadette and Colleen shared a bed with Catherine, together with two other women. The Workhouse had been built to accommodate three thousand people but now held twice that number and it was necessary for inmates to share beds; some would even sleep in the corridors.

The young girls often found it embarrassing to be crowded together with women of all ages, many of whom had been women of the night and were now too old to make a living on the streets. Some were foul mouthed and half crazed. Catherine was afraid of them.

Colleen and Bernadette were sisters whose family had come over on the boat from Dublin, hoping for a better life. Their father, Paddy was a strong labourer and there was plenty of work to be found in the thriving City of Liverpool, but only days after their arrival Paddy fell ill with fever and although he survived, had been left too weak to earn the money needed to keep his family who had been admitted into the Workhouse until he regained his strength, but the meagre Workhouse rations meant this was a slow process. In spite of their predicament Colleen and Bernie did not regard their situation as hopeless, merely temporary and at least, the girls were grateful they were together.

‘Think what it must be like to be thrown into this place alone, Colleen, like poor wee Cathy. No wonder she’s hardly said a word since she came.”

‘Not a word.’ agreed Bernadette. ‘And not a thing we can

do about it.’

The girls were picking oakum, fingers cut and sore from the loathed chore which involved pulling old ropes apart.

‘Sure it’s her brothers she’s fretting over, especially Alfie, the wee one. If she could only see him I’m sure she’d pick up a bit. It would do her the world of good.’

‘I’m thinking we should have a word with the matron, you know Bernie. The girl will fret herself into the grave if we don’t do something.’

Resolute, the sisters went about their task with a vigour seldom seen amongst workhouse inmates. Their hearts warmed in that cold, cheerless place, by the decision to help Catherine.

Matron dealt with numbers. Not individuals; how many mouths to feed? How many beds were needed? How many plates? How much food?… A new little girl became the ‘needer’ of another pinafore, plate, bed … How could she care about loneliness, heartbreak or pain?  Such was her mind-set when the two sisters approached with their request and they were not to know about the layers of numbers which separated the Matron from the rest of mankind.

The two ‘needers’ approached, smiling. This was unusual, matron was unaccustomed to smiles, and responded with a quizzical glare. Bernadette’s courage faltered but Colleen squeezed her hand.

‘Matron, we’ve come to tell you about a wee girl in our dormitory, Catherine Cattell.’

Matron’s glare intensified. The girls stood close together, fragile reeds poised to withstand the tumult of her anger. Colleen squeezed Bernie’s hand till it hurt.

‘Cathy shares a bed with us.’

‘How many in the bed?’

‘Five Matron.’

‘Then there’s room for another.’

She reached for the notepad attached to string around her waist and made a note.

‘Cathy hasn’t eaten for two weeks and she cries all the time Matron.’

‘Which dormitory are you occupying?’

‘Number ten.’

Bernadette began to feel hopeful. Matron was taking notes and showing an interest in Catherine.

‘Are there any more beds in there with less than six occupants?’

‘I don’t know Matron.’

‘We need another count.’

‘Cathy could be dying matron. We think she’s very ill.’

‘What’s her name again?’

‘Catherine Cattell.’

‘Cattell? Ah yes, two brothers occupying a bed in the male quarters. Three Cattells in all.’

‘That’s right Matron. She misses her little brothers so she does. We thought if she could see them she might …’



Colleen was beginning to despair.

‘Take her to the Chapel. I believe there’s a Cattell in the choir.’

She dismissed the girls and hurried to find the janitor.

A bed count was needed

The girls left Matron to her calculations, elated by the result of their audacious quest, and holding hands, they skipped back to the dormitory with a shared joy, seldom seen or felt in their dismal situation.

‘Alfie’s in the choir Cathy! They chorused brightening the sombre chamber with their excitement.

On hearing his name Catherine breathed, as if for the first time.  A sharp and sudden intake of stale Workhouse air which served to render the first stirrings of a revival from the lonely half-life she had endured since the separation.

‘The choir?’

It seemed an odd word to hear in their present circumstances.  The notion of a Workhouse choir was one which Catherine would never have considered, were it not for the fact that Alfie’s name was now attached to it.

‘I didn’t know Alfie could sing.’

‘Well he can, and we’re going to hear him tonight, so we are.’

It was dark when the girls reached the chapel, chores complete and supper over.  Colleen and Bernie glowed with excitement at their new friend’s return to the land of the living.  Catherine had rallied at the thought of seeing her little brother again and it occurred to her that she must not let Alfie see her in such a weak state.  It would help him if he knew she was strong and although her appetite had not returned she forced herself to eat the food she had so vehemently rejected.

The three held hands as they approached the chapel, Bernie and Colleen, strikingly pretty with their flaming red hair and green eyes, were not cowed by their situation and Catherine, small and fragile, her pale face ghostly white in contrast  walked between them gaining strength  with every step.  In the cold winter darkness the candle lit chapel windows winked serenely as they approached and heard the slither of a song begin to penetrate the bleakness. The sisters felt Catherine’s grip tighten as they entered the chapel.

Mr. Hare stood before the little group of choristers, pleased with their efforts in the damp, draughty  chapel as they sang ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ in preparation for the Christmas concert due to happen in two weeks’ time, when the big wigs would gather as well as many of the inmates, on Christmas Eve .  It was a bitter sweet event which often tore at the emotions of the paupers, many of whom had enjoyed past Christmas’ in better circumstances, and he was aware of the fact that the voices of his gang of scraggy urchins had the power to melt the hardest of hearts.

In the half-light, he pondered, the boys’ faces, which in the harsh light of day, carried scars of the hard knocks life had thrown at them, but were almost angelic as they sang their favourite carol, and then as they reached the last verse, he became aware of something odd, stirring amongst them as they began to nudge each other and look beyond him into the shadowy enclaves of the chapel.  As he studied their faces for clues, he noticed something very strange in the ranks.  There on the front row, he saw that sad Alfie was smiling!

The three girls sat together on a hard wooden bench, which offered no degree of physical comfort, but the sight of her little brother looking well and smiling, gave Catherine all the comfort she needed. Mr. Hare did not prevent Alfie running to her at the end of practice and the two hugged each other so hard it hurt.

‘Now Cathy, to be sure you can stop worrying about wee Alfie.  He’s in fine fettle.’

Bernie sang, imitating the choristers, as they made their way back to the dormitory still hand in hand.

They laughed at her effort to hold a note.

‘I’ll never, ever forget what you two did for us.’

Catherine said, her face alight with joy and her voice reflecting the passion she felt for the girls and their kindness.

‘Ah go on wit’ya Cathy. We only did what’s right.  You’d have done the same for us, so you would.’

Colleen put her arm around Catherine’s shoulder and the three happy Workhouse inmates skipped back to the fire lit dorm as if they were living in a palace.

Alfie ran back to the boys’ quarters, grinning from ear to ear to tell Billy the news. He found him with his gang of new friends, talking about the ships at the Pier Head and impressing them with his knowledge of all things nautical. His stories served to distract them from the misery of their plight and also planted the seed of desire for a life at sea in many of their shipwrecked lives.

‘I saw Cathy!’

He bellowed, much to the annoyance of the gathering.  They turned to Alfie. He was flushed with excitement after the run back to Billy and looked different from the boy who had left them two hours earlier.

‘Cathy who?’

Georgie Gibbs queried, reluctant to switch his thoughts from a life at sea with Billy, to the matter of a girl he didn’t even know.

‘My sister,’

Said Billy, trying to hide his elation from the boys who, he knew, admired him. Losing control of his emotions would seem unmanly. Being responsible for Alfie since they had been left in the Workhouse had forced him to grow up sooner than he would have chosen, and he was sensitive enough to know how badly Alfie was suffering, but although he had looked for ways to cheer him up, he knew that only Catherine could manage that, or better still, their father.

Billy left his friends and went to Alfie.

‘She came to choir practice.’

‘You mean she’s in the choir too!’

Billy responded, genuinely astonished by the thought.

‘No! She came to watch me and she was with two girls, not alone.’

Alfie’s words tumbled out, putting an end to the weeks of sorrow.

Billy was so relieved to hear this that in spite of his friends watching, he gave his little brother a hug and ruffled his hair in celebration.  The other boys, for a brief moment, dropped the manly facades, nodding and smiling at each other, extracting fragments of long lost joy from their friends’ happiness.

Chapter 9

In the days after her reunion with Alfie, Catherine began to emerge from the depression which had gripped her, although after the ecstasy of that moment in the chapel with her brother, there was little else to be ecstatic about.  She realised how fortunate she was to have Colleen and Bernadette for friends, and their cheer was a great comfort, but day to day life carried its trials.  The routine was relentless, from morning call at dawn, when she untwined herself from the tangle of arms and legs with which she shared the hard, narrow bed.  Often she would be sore and bruised after falling out of bed during the night, having been kicked or pushed by a sleeping companion.

There were some older women in their dormitory whose lives had been spent sleeping during daylight hours and touting for custom around Lime Street at night.

These women were not in the habit of rising at dawn. They were rough characters whom Catherine avoided when possible.  One in particular, Rosie, she feared. Rosie was well suited to her name, with long, black hair, a white complexion, green eyes and striking red cheeks. At twenty one, her vibrancy was dwindling and signs of premature ageing marred the beauty which had made her popular with the Lime Street punters.  Always defensive and ready for a fight, Rosie intimidated the younger girls. Catherine learned not to glance her way; as if she caught your eye she would confront you;

‘Who are you luk’n at girl?’

With an emphasised ‘you’ she would poke the poor victim in the chest.

‘Don’t luk at me that way!’

She would continue, poking with every word.

Having negotiated the avoidance of Rosie’s glance at dawn, the next trial was a cold water splash, which brought her to full wakefulness.

Quickly donning the black dress and white pinafore workhouse uniform, she would join the other girls in  making the bed and cleaning their dorm before leaving for breakfast, a dish of gluey porridge swilled down by cold water and taken in silence, together with row upon row of broken lives, young and old, each with their own story to tell.

After breakfast the children would have three hours of schooling, but as Catherine was nearly thirteen she had been placed with the needlework teacher, Miss Clancy, to learn a skill which would help her earn a living when she eventually re-joined the human race.   Colleen and Bernie were in the same workshop, but they were forced to communicate through signs and eye motion as they were not permitted to talk as they sewed.  It was dull, repetitive work, stitching pinafores, pillowcases, and dresses in the high windowed room and Miss Clancy with her grey hair pulled back in a tight bun, encased in her stiff, black dress, examined every stitch made in the room, for length and alignment; ardently religious, she would command them;

‘Stitch your prayers into the work girls, Jesus will be your salvation!’

If Miss Clancy found a wrong stitch, she would pull the whole seam out and throw the garment back for the terrified girl to begin again.  Catherine took care with her stitching and Miss Clancy left her alone, but Bernie could never get it right, and occasionally she and Catherine secretly exchanged work so that Cathy could complete a neat row of stitches for her friend.

‘You’ve save my life Cathy, so you have. Sure if old Clancy ever got a glimpse of my stitches, she’d have me hung out to dry for a heathen. There’s no sign of Jesus in my efforts with the needle so there’s not, more like the divil himself wouldn’t you say ?’

‘You could be right Bernie,’ Catherine sighed. ‘I don’t think the devil can be too far from any place where Clancy is.’

‘Don’t let her get you down Bernie.’ Colleen comforted.

The girls were working in the laundry that afternoon, loading bales of sheets and towels into vats of boiling water, hardly able to see each other through the thick billows of steam.

‘But I’ll never be able to sew a straight seam, so I won’t.’.

wailed Bernie, as she wafted the relentless steam, which settled and drenched her hair and clothes and stole silently into her lungs.

Catherine and Colleen, heaved the final bale of soiled linen into the vat and pushed it down with a huge wooden dolly, then dizzy with heat the three walked to their dorm through the bitter December cold.  The fire was lit in their room but Rosie and her friends huddled before it, like crows around their prey, preventing any warmth from circulating. The three perched on their bed to await the supper bell, but Bernadette, aching from the day’s work, soon lay down and drifted to sleep.

‘Will you come with me to see Alfie after supper Collie?

The chapel visits were now a nightly event, during the week before Christmas.  Mr Hare had allowed Catherine to stay and watch her brother and spend a few moments with him after each practice.  Alfie was able to tell her about Billie and his friends and that at school he was doing well.

‘We’ve been drawing Christmas pictures, and the Miss says I’ve got a talent.’

He had announced, the day before. Catherine treasured the moments with her little brother, and desperately wanted the family to be together again.

‘Of course we’ll come, sure a ticket on the ferry to Dublin wouldn’t stop us, so it wouldn’t.’

Colleen joked.

The supper bell rang and they tried to wake Bernie, but she was sleeping soundly.

‘Ah leave her be, Cathy. Supper’s nothing to sing about and she probably needs the sleep more. Let’s be off now.’

They joined the throng of inmates making their way to the canteen. Many were elderly women, husbands long dead, who were no longer of use to their grown families and had no means of support.  Others had enjoyed success in life but when their husbands or fathers were forced into bankruptcy, they had no choice but to join the forlorn ranks.

Catherine searched their faces for a spark of hope. Sometimes she would detect it, the ones for whom this was a passing dark cloud behind which the sun waited, ready to shine on a better life sometime in the future; in others she saw only resignation and no sign of the energy needed to break free.

She desperately wanted to be one of the hopeful ones, even though there were times when escape seemed impossible, she clung to the thought that somewhere beyond the high walls which enclosed them, there was someone thinking about her and her brothers.  Maud would never forget about them, that she knew for certain and although there had been no word of her father for more than two years, she sensed he was alive and that in time he would come for them.

It was a hot supper of scouse, a dish served regularly, which contained potatoes and some fragments of meat. As the girls ate in the eerie silence which befell the room while the weak, weary and hungry inmates relished their morsel, they thought about Bernadette and both regretted the decision to let her sleep.  The hot meal would have been good for her and breakfast was such a scant affair that she would have trouble getting through the day tomorrow.

After supper they braved the cold and made their way to chapel. Mr. Hare was working the choir particularly hard in preparation for the Carol Concert on Christmas Eve and the Christmas Day services.  He had insisted the boys eat well to build their strength for the effort ahead and the girls were truly impressed by the results.

Afterwards, Alfie spent a few moments with them and gave Cathy three pictures he had drawn at school, one for each of them.

‘They’re Christmas trees.’

He explained.

‘Like the one we had in Great Newton Street when mammy was alive, Cathy. I thought we could get one the same next year when we we’re out.’

‘We will Alfie. I promise we will.’

She pulled her little brother close to her, and wrapped him in her arms, burying her face in his hair and trying desperately to stop herself from crying.  Where was their father?  How could he let this happen? The thoughts tormented her.

‘Next Christmas will be different Alf I promise.’

The girls were sombre as they made their way back to the dormitory.  Above them, light years away, an infinity of stars dazzled the dark December sky and a bright, full moon, beamed blue streaks of light across their cobbled path; Catherine’s promise to Alfie had changed their mood, and sewn a seam of determination into the fibres of each girl’s being, so straight and perfect, that Miss Clancy would be proud, and somehow they would both find a way to fulfill it.

There was a commotion in the dormitory when they arrived.

In the lamplight of the cold room, where embers of a feeble fire glowed in the hearth, the girls sensed something awful, as a line of pale faces turned towards them. A slither of moonlight cast its glow across the room and onto the bed where Bernie had been sleeping when they left.  It was around this bed that Rosie and her cronies were gathered, but Bernie was no longer there.

‘Where’s my sister?’

Colleen demanded, feeling sure they had done something terrible to Bernie.

‘They took her away.’

Rosie replied, reaching for Colleen and placing a hand gently on her shoulder.

‘Took her away? Sure who took her away? She’s my sister!’

Chapter 10

The day Lizzie had taken the children to the Workhouse, Maud had been at her Grandmother’s house on Peach Street. She and Cathy often called in on their grandparents and busied themselves around the house, scrubbing the floors and doorstep and washing clothes and bed linen. Margaret Quirke was not, genetically speaking, their real grandmother, but since she had married their granddad long before they were born, she was accepted as such without question.

On the day it happened, Lizzie, had asked Maud to go to Peach Street with a basket of food she’d been busy baking.

‘Your grandma’s expectin’ you Maudie, and I think she’s want’n you to stay an help out with a few things.’

‘Right mammy, I’ll just get Cathy to come along.’

Maud and Lizzie were sitting at the large table, in front of the hob peeling potatoes for supper. Lizzie had sent Catherine upstairs to clean the room, in which she slept, together with Maud, Billie, Alfie, and her younger cousins, Beatrice, Jack and Tom.  A curtain draped across the room separated the boys and girls but offered very little in the way of privacy.

‘Cathy’s stoppin’ here today Maud. I have a few jobs for her.’

‘She can do them when she gets back mam.  I’ll help her.’

Maud responded immediately.

‘No luv’ you go, yer gran’s waiting, Cathy’s stoppin’ here today.’

Maud became suspicious, her mam had threatened to take her cousins to the workhouse on a few occasions recently, saying she had reached, ‘the end of her tether’, with it all, and couldn’t manage to feed all the mouths in the house.  She and Catherine had huddled together on the front step after one such outburst;

‘Don’t worry Cathy, I won’t let her do it.’

Maud whispered.  Catherine desperately searched the street for her father, as she always did from her lookout on the top step. She believed he would appear any minute and all would be well.

She turned to her mother who was fussing around the stove with a wet rag, scrubbing away at a non-existent stain.

‘What are you planning mam?’

‘Planning?  What do you mean luv? I’ve got no plans for today beyond cleaning the house and cooking.’

‘In that case Cathy can come with me.’

‘I need her to stay here Maudie.  She can keep an eye on the boys while I get a few jobs done.  Time you were off now grandma’s waiting for you.’

Maud blamed herself for what happened to Catherine and the boys that day.  In spite of her misgivings she had left the house and her cousins at the mercy of her mother whose behaviour had been erratic, verging on madness of late. There had been hushed conversations between her parents and although Maud knew the decision had not been easy for them, nevertheless, her closeness to Catherine, would never allow her to concede that it was the right one.

On her return that day, she found her mother in the ‘best room’, used only on special occasions, vigorously polishing the ornamental brassware displayed around the hearth.

‘Where’s Cathy, mam?’

Lizzie continued to buff the brass plate as sunlight filtered through gauze curtains and a million tiny particles of dust floated aimlessly across shafts of light in that neat little room, reserved for special times like weddings, Christenings and funerals.

‘She’s gone luv.  I couldn’t cope and we have no money Maudey! I had to do it, God knows I tried my best but it was impossible to carry on.  You four need food and clothes.  What was I to do? They’ll be better off in the Workhouse,,, fed …looked after. They’ll be better off Maud. I know they will. They’re my poor sister’s children. I wouldn’t do anything bad to them. I wouldn’t!’

Maud could see the redness around her eyes and knew her mother was suffering, but Cathy had gone and her life was destroyed.

‘Mammy! We’ve got to get them back! Come with me now, mam. Let’s get them. It’s not too late and we’ll manage. Me and Cathy can work at something. Come on mam let’s go.’

Maud was rushing round fetching Lizzie’s cape and bonnet as she spoke, and now stood hopefully before her mother who remained on her knees and would not meet her gaze.

‘It’s done Maudie, It’s done. That’s and ends to it!’

She knew her mother’s tone was definite and the argument was over.

That evening Maud kept vigil at the Workhouse gate, peering through iron sentinels to the grey yard beyond where, on occasion a waiflike spectral girl would wander.

‘Have you seen Catherine?’

Maud had called out hopefully.

The girl’s response was vague and hinted at insanity,

‘Catherine died today. She died.’

‘Catherine Cattell, I mean, with Billie and Alfie.  Have you seen them?  They came today.’

Maud persisted.

‘All dead.’

Said the girl.

‘We’ve all died.’

And off she drifted, a Workhouse Ophelia, making no sense to the desperate little girl on the other side of the gate.

Maud returned home and sat on the top step without Catherine beside her, and as the light faded on that cold November evening, she resumed Catherine’s watch, ever hopeful that her Uncle John, Cathy’s daddy, would return.

For weeks this was her routine.  Every day she would stand and wait at the gate, hopeful to catch a glimpse of her cousins or someone who knew them. Wrapped in a green woollen cape and wearing her best red bonnet to shield her from the bitter wind she would watch the yard, but it was not easily accessible for the inmates and apart from the spectral girl, very few found their way. The only regular visitors were the pigeons and sparrows neither of which lingered long since there was nothing to keep them there.  Evenings saw her on the top step, sometimes her little sister Beatrice would join her, and as they watched they would think of ways of finding their Uncle John.

Beatrice, a sharp witted little girl of six years, was one of the fare haired, blue eyed members of the clan, and as her features emerged from the baby years, Maud was surprised to find her little sister was the image of Catherine, and as she shared the top step with her, thinking of ways to find their uncle it was almost like having her cousin there beside her and through Beatrice’s companionship she began to feel less lonely.

Beatrice had been playing stick and hoop up and down the cobbles, and was quite adept at keeping the wooden hoop upright as she chased it down a slope in the road, when it wobbled and clattered onto the road, she retrieved it and joined Maud.

‘Do you really think Uncle John will come back Maudie?’

She asked, putting the hoop over her head and suspending it round her neck like a giant necklace.  The lamplighter was doing his rounds and as he lit the lamppost positioned outside their house, they huddled in its glow, Maud pulling Beatrice close to her.

‘He has to Beatie. I can’t think of any other way of getting them out.  Unless mam changes her mind, and that’s not going to happen.’

‘Why not write notes and stick them to trees, and everywhere?  We could stick them to St Georges Hall and all over the Pier Head. ‘’Come home John Cattell!’’

Maud laughed at the idea.

‘You write the notes Beatie my sweetie, and I’ll come with you to do the sticking.  How many will you make?’

‘Five to start with,’ Beatrice looked earnest;

‘We’ll stick them to all the lampposts on Great Newton Street.’

‘It’ll be a start.’  Maud nodded supportively.

While they were talking Maud was watching the figure of a man standing just beyond the lamplight across the street.  She had not noticed him pass by so he must have come from the Brownlow Hill end of their Street.  She would not have thought much of his presence, except that she remembered seeing a man in the same spot the two previous evenings.  He had lingered for a while before walking back in the direction from whence he came.  She squinted to get a clearer view through the darkness, but could not make out any features and, thinking there would be no harm in getting a closer look, she descended the steps, but before she reached the road, the figure had gone.  Deciding not to mention him to Beatrice, she climbed the steps to the front door and ushered her inside,

‘Come on Beat it’s too cold to be sitting here now.’

Instinct was telling her that something had changed.  That in all the years she and Cathy had kept watch, this was a significant sighting, and as she joined her family, warm around the table in the kitchen, she wanted to believe that, at last, Cathy’s daddy had come home.

Chapter 11

There were pools of water in the yard beyond Maud’s gate at the Workhouse.  She had come to regard it as her gate since standing at it was now a regular part of her daily routine.  The rain had been relentless for two days and as darkness fell across Liverpool, Maud was about to end her vigil when the spectre girl appeared.  She waded through the water seemingly oblivious to her drenched state.  Reaching for the bars of the gate she clutched them and Maud was surprised to perceive signs of intelligence in the gaze which met hers. They faced each other, divided by a few strips of wrought iron and a few degrees of poverty.

Close up the girl was older that Maud had guessed during their first brief encounter, possibly her own age,  no longer a child, not quite a woman, ghostly pale with huge green eyes conveying unfathomable depths of sorrow.

‘Have you seen Catherine?’

Maud pleaded.  The girl was silent.

‘What’s your name?’

Maud ventured, hoping to gain her trust.

‘Anne,’ she replied, ‘I’m Anne.’

It was as if she had spoken her name for the first time and was surprised to discover that she owned one.

‘Anne, take this note and give it to Catherine,’

Maud pulled Anne’s wet fingers from the bar and wrapped them round the note she had written that morning.

‘Please give it to Catherine.’

She repeated as Anne waded back across the yard and out of sight.

Maud doubted the note would reach her cousin, but it was worth a try, and as she splashed through the puddles on her way home, she allowed herself a few cautiously joyous big splashes.

Chapter 12

The puddles left by the rain had turned to ice by Christmas Eve, making the journey to chapel treacherous for the cold, feeble waifs and strays who struggled to remain upright on their way to the carol service.  Attendance was obligatory for those able to manage the short journey, although there was a lack of Christmas cheer amongst their number.

Catherine and Colleen were numbed not only by the freezing temperature, but also by the events of the previous day. During their absence, Bernie had collapsed and been taken to the Infirmary and the girls had been unable to glean any information about her state of health.

‘You’ll just have to hope and pray.’

The warden had sneered.

It transpired that Bernie had been found beside the bed, apparently lifeless, by Rosie, after supper.

‘She was laid over there on the floor.  White as a sheet she was, poor thing, and freezing cold. I put one of them blankets over her and sent Minnie to get help.’

Rosie’s characteristic harshness has dissolved as she recounted the events.

‘I thought she was dead Collie, but then her eyes gave a tiny flicker and I pulled her close to me so as to warm her up a bit. Then Matron came and they took her away.’

Catherine hated to see the anguish in Colleen’s eyes and knew it would remain until she was together with her sister again.  That night had been the cruelest either of them had experienced, as they lay awake listening to the hellish sounds that pierced the darkness.   In their threesome they had felt safe, but Bernadette’s absence and the terrible thought that it may be forever had left them both in shock and trembling beneath bedclothes, they had clung to each other.

As they reached the chapel an old woman approached, toothless and sallow skinned with wisps of grey hair tucked in a white mop cap.

‘Are you Colleen?’

‘I am that.’

‘I’ve to tell you Bernie’s awake and getting better.’

She nodded and was about to walk away, but Colleen pulled her back and delivered a hug almost enough to break her feeble bones.

‘Sure is that the truth?’

‘Yes it is dearie. She told me with her very own mouth when I was up on her ward last night.  The doctor says it’s pneumonia, and she’s very poorly, but by the grace of God, she’ll get better.’

Her smile, even without teeth, lit up the ancient face.

‘Will you see her again?’

Catherine asked hopefully,

‘I’ll be back up there tonight girlie.’

‘Please could you give her this?’

Catherine dug into the pocket of her pinafore and pulled out the Christmas Tree Afie had drawn for Bernie.  The three observed it with delight.  A watercolour, perfectly balanced tree, emblazoned with candles and baubles below which were the words, Happy Christmas Bernadette, in beautifully formed script.  It occurred to Catherine that Alfie had inherited their father’s artistic talent, as she noted the precision with which it had been drawn, and for a dizzying moment she remembered how Alf would perch on the chair arm watching their daddy sketch his designs for the print works.

‘She’ll get it tonight luvies. My name’s Gertie, if you need to find me, just ask for Gertie the nurse.’

‘Thank you Gertie.’

The girls chorused and the chapel bell rang for the service to begin.

Inside the chapel Mr. Hare’s ragged choir delivered their songs to a forlorn congregation, but Alfie, perched on a bench on the second row, 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 she 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 at her.

‘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.’

The people around 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.  Although, still in her rapturous state, 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 her this 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 special, and 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, I’m feel’n stronger now, so I am, 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 began to fill 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 to make their way back, 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 was just able to read the words.

‘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,


It had been a day of surprises for both girls, but when Catherine read Maud’s note to Colleen the two were speechless for some time.  The other occupants of their room were gathered around the hearth talking about Christmas and how awful it was to be in the Workhouse instead of with family.

‘My mam made plum pudding like no-one else.’

Eve Smith mused, gazing dreamily into the dying embers, the child emerging briefly from a cocoon of world weariness, spun over years of hardship.

‘There was ten of us children and always enough food to go round.  She’d spin in her grave if she knew I was in here, an’ if it weren’t for that stupid husband of mine and his gamblin’ I would ‘ave been making my own plum pudding now.’

The others joined in with a stream of similar stories and romantic memories of wonderful Christmas’ past. Catherine and Colleen were in bed, oblivious to the seasonal banter, while they continued to study Maud’s note, seemingly searching for more; another clue to cast light on her final sentence.

Colleen could still sense the warmth of her father’s hands and smiled as she remembered his defiant wink in the chapel.  Where there was so much misery and self-pity, her da and Cathy’s brother Billy, reminded her that this was not for ever, and there was a life beyond the Workhouse gates, where she would be very soon; and now this; could there really be the same hope for Cathy and her brothers? Had her da come to fetch her?

Chapter 13

‘I need to see Maud.’

Catherine finally announced, returning from the depths of thought into which the note had carried her.

‘Yes but four in the afternoon’s not a good time to get away and where’s the gate at the cobbled yard?’

I’ve been thinking about that and wonder if she means the traders’ entrance, where supplies get delivered. It’s walled off from the rest of the workhouse but there’s a door that’s sometimes left open.  We’ll go along tomorrow.  I’m desperate to see her and even more desperate to hear what she has to say about my daddy.’

After lights out and the usual scramble for space in their bed, neither girl slept for a long time, with thoughts of escape, and having a real life, racing through their heads.

The Workhouse on Christmas Day was not a joyous place to be, although an effort was made to bring a modicum of cheer.  Walls were hung with coloured paper chains made by the inmates, and Christmas dinner was served to the tightly packed rows of hungry, cheerless individuals, all of whom would rather be elsewhere. There were those however, who were grateful to have shelter, food and warmth, in spite of the circumstances, and the day was markedly different from others, by the fact that they had no work to do.

A warmer rain had fallen overnight leaving only traces of the ice which had caused a number of casualties to be carried off to the Infirmary.  After dinner the inmates were given free time, and many gathered in day rooms to tell stories and sing Christmas songs, there was an unusual outpouring of love and camaraderie.  The girls sensed a significant change of mood in the normally severe wardens and wondered if they might be able to take advantage of the occasion.

They were sitting together on a bench in the women’s day room, a draughty place, where only the immediate vicinity of the hearth retained any degree of warmth.  The Christmas dinner had been a treat, which both acknowledged and the boost to their energy seemed also to have boosted their confidence.

‘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 in the institution where brown, blue and white dominated.

‘Let’s do it!’  She finally ventured, ‘If we go now to the Infirmary, we should be able to make the gate at four o’clock.’

Chapter 14

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.’

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.

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 ‘appeningere?’ She exploded, her yellow face turning a deep 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.

‘She’s in the’ chest ward’.’ Gertie answered. Pneumonia.’

‘Where’s that? ‘Catherine queried, regaining her confidence, and addressing the sympathetic voice in the shadows.

‘End of the corridor, turn right and you’re there.’

‘’ere, I’ll take you.’Gertie offered.  ‘You lot behave yourselves, I’ll be back in a whisker.’

As they left the ward the girls glimpsed the red and swollen face of the woman in the shadows.

‘Thank you.’ Catherine whispered, shocked by the sight.

‘What’s your name?’ Asked the woman.

‘Catherine Cattell.’

There was a brief pause.

‘John’s daughter?’

‘Yes. Do you know him?’

‘Know him? I did once, or thought I did. He told me about you and your brothers.  He didn’t forget you,’

‘How do you know him? Where is he now?’

Catherine reeled with the shock of hearing her father’s name.

‘I don’t know where he is. He may be dead for all I know.’

‘Come on if your coming.’ Gertie shrilled, and ushered the girls out before Catherine had time to question further.

She was still dazed by the encounter when they reached the’ chest ward’, where they found Bernie sitting up in bed looking frail but still breathing at least. She shrieked with delight when she saw Colleen and Catherine enter the ward and the three hugged each other.

‘For the love of God Bernie,we thought you’d died on us so we did.’ Colleen was tearful as she clung to Bernie’s hand.

‘Well I have to say, I thought the same for a while.’

‘Happy Christmas!’

Colleen beamed, having fulfilled her wish and oblivious to the gloomy environment of the ward. Her sister was alive and she could hold her hand. That’s what mattered.

Catherine noticed Alfie’s Christmas tree picture beside Bernie’s pillow.

‘Tell him thanks for that. Whenever I’m feeling miserable I look at it and it cheers me up, so it does.’

Bernie smiled, taking the picture and admiring the cheerful image, incongruous in her present surroundings. Colleen felt complete again at the sound of her sister’s lovely voice, the absence of which had left a terrible void in her life.

‘He’s quite an artist your Alfie.’

Catherine nodded absently, her mind wandering to the strange woman in the’ itch ward’. If only she’d been able to stay and ask more about her father, she may have been closer to finding him.

A large nurse was making her way towards them, wearing an expression unsuited to the festive occasion.

‘You’d better get out of ‘ere.’

Gertie advised in a loud whisper,

‘ It’s Nurse Peg, not to be trifled with.’

And turning to the girls she assumed an air of outrage, hands on hips and shouted.

‘I telled yous two to get out now didn’t I?

The girls fled, leaving Bernie to explain their presence to nurse Peg and wound their way through the maze of bleak corridors, before creeping out and into the half light as the sun set.  A crimson sky blazed above the Workhouse, and the girls shivered.

They were so relieved to be out of the dreadful, hospital atmosphere, thick with the smell if sickness and death and able to breath the fresh icy air of freedom, albeit workhouse freedom, that their next wish had been forgotten and not until the chapel bell rang four times to mark the hour, did they remember Maude.

They sped to the little tradesman’s courtyard and Maude’s gate. Catherine stood on the lower bar and peered over the rails, up and down Brownlow Hill.

‘She’s not here. We’ve missed her.’ She murmured despondently, shivering in her cotton pinafore, too flimsy to protect against the freezing December chill.  Colleen climbed up beside her, still elated having seen Bernie, but feeling her friend’s disappointment.

‘She’ll be back tomorrow,’

‘Tomorrow we’ll be working.’ Catherine replied flatly.

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.

Chapter 15

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 Anne Marie’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 February.  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 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 twelve 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 must not be Catherine.  She must be one of Lizzie’s younger daughters.  If that was the case, where were his children?

Chapter 15

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

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.

‘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, ironically, 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.

Three weeks had passed since Bernie and Colleen had left her; only three weeks? It seemed like three life times.  She thought about their parting words.’ We’ll be at the gate every day.’ and hoping they had not given up on her, she regretted having almost given up on herself.

After supper she went to the yard and peered through the railings at busy Brownlow Hill where the early evening socialites were about their business.  Carriages carrying the very rich bumped along the cobbled road towards the City Centre where entertainment of the highest rank awaited them at theatres, music halls and restaurants.  Liverpool was the second city to London and home to many wealthy merchants who enjoyed a charmed life in landscaped mansions on the city outskirts, where the sullied arms of smoke and grime could not reach.

Catherine was indifferent towards these people.  She liked to see the beautifully groomed horses and polished carriages, but her thoughts never drifted to greater depths. She accepted that she was not one of them, and that was the end of it.

‘So there y’are Cathy me darlin!!’

Her world warmed at the sound of Colleen’s melodic voice.

‘It’s standin’ here every night we’ve been and after frettin’ our socks off about you.’ Colleen scolded, but the girls joined hands through the railings, knowing that no such barrier could hinder their friendship.

Bernadette and Colleen looked stunning, with bright red shawls and emerald green bonnets to brighten their plain brown frocks.   Long raven curls hung in ringlets the like of which would never be seen on Catherine’s side of the railings.

‘Gertie gave me a message from ‘elen in the itch ward.’ Catherine whispered.

‘Elen?’ The girls were puzzled.

‘Yes,she knows my daddy.’

‘Ah, sure the one you spoke to when we were about looking for Bernie.’ Colleen recalled their Christmas visit to the Infirmary with a smile.

‘She says to look in The Crown on Lime Street and he’s got a ticket to America.’

‘America! Jaysus! I’ll ask me da to look for him.  The Crown on Lime Street’s not the sort of place ladies like us should be hang’n around, so it’s not.’ Said Bernie with a wink.

‘More for the ladies of the night, to be sure.’ Colleen swung her purse and affected a provocative walk to make her point.

The three laughed histerically until the bell rang for Cathy to return to her dormitory and destroyed the mirth.

‘Stay strong now Cathy! You’ll soon be out here with us, havin’ a laugh!’ Colleen comforted.

‘See you tomorrow?’ She pleaded.

‘We will that!’ Bernie promised.

But it would a while, and under very different circumstances, before the three were to meet again.

Chapter 16

When Paddy McGuire left the Workhouse he promised Billy Cattell that he would look out for some work for him; He knew it was Billy’s ambition to go to sea, and saw no reason why a healthy lad of twelve should not be on his way to earning a living.

‘I’ll ask around the Docks for you Billy lad.’ He told his young friend as he left, and true to his word, Paddy found him work as a ship’s hand.  Billy stayed at the Workhouse for a bed at night, but now he was able to spend his days around the place of his dreams.  He had been ten years of age when Auntie Lizzie left him in the Workhouse, he felt betrayed and bitter.  The hurt as deep as the oceans he longed to sail and the hatred he had long nurtured for his father, like a dormant sea monster, submerged, awaiting an awakening, although those who knew him would never have believed him capable of such feelings.  He was a warm and likable boy whose cheerful, mischievous spark had not been extinguished by the suffocating regime he had endured.

Handsome and quick to smile, he was popular and made many friends among the inmates, Friendships forged in adversity and strong enough to last a lifetime.  But the memory of scouring the bars of Liverpool with Catherine and Alfie in search of their father, to bring him home for their dying mother, would never leave him, and although the longing and longing to find his father remained, he knew he would never forgive him for deserting them.

The boat was a bright red steamer called The Coral, which carried passengers from Liverpool to Amsterdam.  Tom Featherstone, the Captain, was always looking out for lads ‘with the sea in their blood’, as he put it, and sensed that Billy was just that.

‘You’re no stranger to the life here Billy.’ He had remarked, ‘I’ve watched you at the rigging, you know what you’re doing!’

‘I spent my childhood here Captain; wanted to learn everythin’ so I could be a seaman.’

‘Work hard for me Bill and soon I’ll take you on a trip.  I like to keep the ship clean and tidy.  If we look after her, she’ll look after us.’

‘I’ll do me best Captain.’

In his bed at the Workhouse, he felt the faint stirrings of hope, a new sensation, like life returning to a long numbed limb,

On The Coral, he cleaned the deck polished brass and mahogany, checked the rigging and waved her on her way like a proud father as she bobbed, bright red on the choppy River Mersey.

It was on one such occasion in early February, after watching The Coral until she was a tiny dot on the churning waves of the Irish Sea that he turned shivering towards the bustle of the Pier Head.  It was early morning and Liverpool was already wide awake. The City was booming.  Hotels and guest houses were full with travelers passing through and every inch of land was claimed for development.  Magnificent buildings dwarfed the people who flooded in their masses to find sanctuary at the gateway to a future that Liverpool had become.  A magnet for artists, writers, architects, merchants and tradesmen, it had been named ‘the centre of the universe’, and as Billy stood at the riverside that gusty February morning he inhaled the pure excitement of the City and now that he belonged to a boat, and Captain Featherstone’s crew, he felt he was part of it all and not a mere onlooker.

He watched for a while as the centre of the universe milled around him, and considered approaching the captain of The Liverpool Lady which was in dock and bound for America in ten days.  It was his ambition to join a big ship one day, but the time was not right.  Cathy and Alfie needed him.

It was in that moment, as his thoughts drifted to his brother and sister that he saw the face.  It emerged from the crowd, passed him and was gone.  It was his father’s face. The one he had searched for as a small child while his mother lay dying, the one he had dreamed about during the hopeless years in the Workhouse. It was thinner, greyer, but it was the same one!

‘Daddy!’ He called. ‘Daddy!’, But his father had gone. The crew of a Russian merchant ship had disembarked and swamped the Pier, and Billy’s daddy was lost again.

Chapter 17

‘Well if it’s not Billy Cattell! Sure me da said I’d find you around here, so he did. You’re lookin’ well Billy.’

It took a few moments for Billy to recognize the flame haired girl standing before him. He had seen Colleen only once, in the Workhouse chapel on Christmas Day, and then she was wearing the drab workhouse uniform.  Here she was now flaunting a green velvet bonnet and cape, with a smile as broad as the River Mersey across her freckle strewn face.  It was the smile that reminded him.


‘That’s me, so it is.  I’m after lookin’ for you. Me da sent me Billy.  Gertie the nurse sent him a note from Ellen in the itch ward to say that your da’s here and he has a ticket to America.  So he has.’


‘Yes Gertie, to be sure.’

‘And Ellen in the itch ward?’

‘Yes Ellen. She’s a friend of your da, or was. She says your da hangs out at the Crown on Lime Street, so he does, and you’ve to meet me da there tonight.’

Billy was mesmerized by the vision that was Colleen and her lively Irish lilt.  The message was secondary to the seed which had embedded itself at the core of his being. And there he stood at the centre of the universe, belonging to a little red ship called The Coral, knowing his dad was alive and not far away, but most significantly of all, he had fallen in love with Colleen.

Chapter 18

The night of her meeting with Bernie and Colleen at the gate, Catherine developed a fever, crying deliriously into the darkness of the freezing room, her hot breath forming clouds of condensation.

It was Rosie who came to her bed and carried her limp, feather light body to the infirmary, which was swamped by fever.  Rosie stayed with her and sponged her with cool water. In the morning Catherine awoke to find the young woman who had terrorised  her life during the early days of her Workhouse confinement, sleeping exhausted, on the floor beside her bed.

‘Wake up young lady’,

The tone was kind and the nurse gently stroked Rosie’s head.

‘Your patient is going to be fine.’

Catherine was weak but the fever had gone, leaving in its stead a bond of friendship strong enough to last a life time, between the two.

‘Don’t mind me Cathy. I’m a woman of the night, It’s all I know! But it’ll be different for you. You’ll have a better life.’

‘Right now Rosie, life’s not looking too great for either of us.’ Catherine observed.

Seven years older and infinitely more world weary; Rosie assumed a motherly roll towards the girl whose life she had undoubtedly saved that night in February, and Catherine found that beneath the rough, defensive exterior lay a good nature, and a willingness to listen to her story.

‘I’m sorry your mam passed away, Cathy, and your dad disappeared, but you’ve got some good memories and that’s an ‘elp.  Your dad’ll come back, I know he will. But if he doesn’t, you’ll be fine, I promise.’

Rosie’s resolve strengthened Catherine and she emerged from her illness, a changes person.  Those words, ‘If he doesn’t, you’ll be fine’, became her cornerstone.  It had never occurred to her that she could move on from this misery, without her father rescuing her.  But if Rosie had no such dream, why should she?

Chapter 19

Miss Clancy was pleased to see Catherine return to the sewing room after weeks recovering in the Infirmary.  She recognised talent in her pupil, whose work had always been outstanding.

‘Catherine dear, how nice to see you back,’ Miss Clancy gushed.

‘Thank you Miss.’

Catherine’s response was cautious.  She had witnessed Miss Clancy’s darker side when dealing with girls, like Bernie, who were not so good at stitching, and consequently, she had a terrible fear of being on the receiving end of the pious woman’s wrath.

‘I have a proposal for you my dear. Don’t look so afraid; it’s a good proposal.  I have a friend who is a milliner.  She is seeking an apprentice; someone able to wield a needle, and I’ve already secured you the position. You will start on Monday in her divine little shop which is situated on Church Street. It will be a trial for two weeks which I am confident you will pass, after which you will lodge above the shop while in receipt of your training and a small stipend.  Now you may resume your work.’

Miss Clancy permitted herself to smile briefly and Catherine, dizzy with shock, silently returned to the seat she had occupied for two years, stitching seams, which would stretch the length of the Mersey and then again for Bernie.  She had never experienced sheer elation, but now it welled up from some dark untapped depth within her and she wanted to scream with joy.  But instead she fought back tears and stitched her joy and prayers of thanks into her work; just as Miss Clancy had always instructed.

‘You’ll be makin’ ‘ats for posh people.’

Rosie declared on hearing Cathy’s news.

‘That’s what milliners do.’

‘But I’ve only ever sewed a seam.  I’ve no experience of hats.’  Catherine had a sudden memory of her mother scolding her for calling a hat an ‘at.  “Don’t drop aitches Cathy, its common.’ She had warned her. Perhaps my mother had a premonition that I’d work in a hat shop, Catherine mused, she smiled at the thought.

‘’ats are more interestin’ than seams luvy. All them feathers and lace.  When I get out of ‘ere I’ll come and get an ‘at you’ve made.  Black an’ red with an enormous brim.’

Rosie had placed a shabby pillow on her head and tied it with a piece of string she found in her pocket.

‘I hope it won’t be long before you’re out Rose. Come and see me when you can.’

‘I don’t think your posh boss will want the likes of me in the shop, but I’ll get a message through and if anyone gives you any trouble, let me know. I’ll deal with them.’

‘I’m sure you will Rosie, but I’d rather talk myself out of trouble thank you.’

‘Please yourself then. But if anyone ‘arms you sweetie, they’ll answer to me.’ Rosie strode off to her bed.

Catherine was so elated to be moving back to the world of the living, that she had not given much thought to her little brothers.  Restless in her bed, she was aware that not only was her life about to be transformed, but this was an opportunity that could enable her to make plans for a future which would include Alfie and Billy.  She recalled Rosie’s wise words; ‘If your father doesn’t return, you’ll be fine.’ And now it seemed that, thanks to Miss Clancy, arch enemy and persecutor of all those wretched souls who struggled to sew a straight seam, she may indeed, be fine.

Chapter 20

The Workhouse committee had allowed Billy to leave the premises during the day on the basis that Captain Featherstone would pay for his keep until he returned from Amsterdam, whereupon he would enlist the boy as an apprentice on The Coral.  Soon The Coral would be his home.  Billy had no intention of staying on land for long, once his life at sea began.  However, he was under obligation to return before six in the evening, after which time he would lose his right to stay and would be forced to spend the night sleeping on the streets.

‘I can’t go to the Crown to find my dad Colleen.  I have to be back at the hell hole by six, else they’ll lock me out and the Captain has paid my keep.’

They were making their way to Scotland Road where Paddy and the girls lived.

‘Sure, how will he know who your da is? He’s never seen the man. But I’m worried what he might do when he finds him, so I am. Your da’s not his favourite person, after what he did to you three.’

‘He’s not exactly mine either.’

They had reached the house and were pushing past a gang of bedraggled, bony boys lurking round the doorstep.  The place was teeming with people.  Women with pasty babies on their arms, stood aimlessly around the hallway exchanging banalities to pass the time.  Small barefoot children charged up and down the stairs, and on the landing men in suits solemnly smoked pipes, dignified in adversity.

‘This is our place. Come on in,’

Colleen had opened a door on the ground floor at the front of the house and they entered a large, neat room.  The furniture was shabby but sufficient.  At one end of the room a curtain separated the living space from the beds, and in a dark alcove stood a stove and sink.  Billy marveled at it.

‘Is it all yours?’ He gasped.

‘Mine and me Da and Bernie’s. But Bernie must have gone off somewhere. Sure I thought she’d be here to say hello.  Da’s workin’.  But he’ll be home soon Billy, will I get you a drink of water?’

‘I have to be going Colleen.’

He felt suddenly shy, finding himself in a room alone with the girl to whom he had just given his heart even though she did not yet know it. He felt his cheeks begin to burn.

‘I’ll tell me da you can’t come tonight.  Now I know where y’are I’ll come and see you again.’

‘I hope you do Colleen.’

The two parted but not without an exchange of significant glances, which left them in no doubt that their souls were now as one.

He made his way through the chaos of life in the docklands, where it seemed the nationalities of all the world had come together for a great gathering, Russians, Poles, Irish, Scottish, Italian, and Chinese, mingling together and communicating as best they could. A brisk wind blew smoke from street fires, which welcomed any traveler to stop and catch some heat.

The memory of his father’s face in the crowd returned to him.  His unexpected passion for Colleen had temporarily erased the incident from his mind, but Billy knew it was only a matter of time before he would be reunited with the man for whom he felt only loathing.

Chapter 21

His feet ached through restless wanderings around the streets of Liverpool and the turmoil of his thoughts found no peace in the City where his mind was haunted by the memory of his wife Anne Marie, and his cowardly abandonment of Catherine, Billy and Alfie.

John’s decision to buy a ticket to America had been spontaneous, a sudden gesture which he felt would erase the past and allow him a new beginning; so now, he walked and walked, anxious for his new life to arrive and for the Liverpool Lady to carry him away.

When Billy saw him at the Pier Head, John had been for his daily visit to The Liverpool Lady, the only place he was able to cease his wanderings.   A gaunt figure, swamped in his long oversized greatcoat, seemingly oblivious to everything but the ticket in his pocket and the ship on which he was soon to sail.

Shame had prevented him from any attempt to contact his children or Anne Marie’s family. He had persuaded himself that they were better off without him, and decided to ignore the voice of his conscience, which was bidding him to try harder and at least locate the children before sailing.

On his arrival in Liverpool he had lodged for a few nights at the Crown Inn on Lime Street, a busy gathering place for travelers and locals, but moved to a small guesthouse further out of the City, when he noticed furtive glances cast his way through the smoke filled room, from a couple of seasoned drinkers slouched with pints and pipes at the bar.

One of the men happened to be the brother of Ellen, the poor woman languishing on the itch ward suffering from a serious case of scabies.  She had befriended John during his time of turmoil, before leaving Liverpool, and it was through her brother that Ellen had learned of John’s return and his intention to sail.

Gertie the nurse rented a small dank room in a house on Scotland Road where she slept on a bundle of blankets.  The kind old soul hastened to Paddy’s lodgings with Ellen’s message and it became a race against time to locate John before he sailed.

“Would you ever be knowing the whereabouts of a fella called John Cattell darlin’?”

Paddy asked the  barmaid at The Crown Inn.

“No I don’t I’m sorry to say. But if you want to tell me all about him I’m willin’ to listen.”

She winked at Paddy, who blushed mildly, but enjoyed the flattery.

‘He was ‘ere but he’s gone now,’ declared a voice which emanated from an entity perched on the stool beside Paddy.

It was Ellen’s brother in his usual position at the bar. His voice was hoarse and hardly audible. Years of dwelling in the bar enveloped by a grey haze, had seemingly smoked him like a kipper.

Paddy was visibly stung by this revelation.

‘Then can you tell me where he’s after goin’?”

‘All’s I know is he’s got a ticket to America. He showed it to the landlord the day he left.  He’ll be sailin’ on The Liverpool Lady.’

‘Is it a friend of his you are?’ Paddy enquired downing a hard earned pint of warm beer.

‘No but me sister took a fancy to ‘im once.  Then he took off, disappeared like, broke ‘er  heart. A troubled man, very troubled, dying wife, three littluns.’

‘Sure I know all about that my friend.’

‘The name’s Jacob.’ He held out a crusty nicotine tarred hand, which Paddy gripped firmly.

‘Good man Jacob. They call me Paddy McGuire.  I’ll be on my way home to my girls so I will.’

‘Hope to see you again Paddy McGuire. They call me Ethel.’ The barmaid declared.

‘Pleased to meet you Ethel, I may well return. That was a grand pint.’

He set off to deliver the bad news to Bernie and Colleen.  He had been hopeful of an encounter with John, but in spite of his disappointment, the encounter with Ethel had lifted his flagging spirit.

Next day, as the weary sun struggled through an unyielding cloud laden winter dawn, The Liverpool Lady set sail for New York.

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