© Pat Goulding
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THE STORY SO FAR
Aunt Harriet's family consists of her nephew John, his wife Maureen, daughters Isobel, Louise and Catherine and son Jamie. They are all shocked at the disclosure in her Will that she had a son no-one ever knew about. Isobel reads Aunt Harriet's journal where she reveals her secret love affair with an American writer called Rob McHugh. Harriet's brother, Tom dies suddenly in Dublin and her parents are devastated. Harriet and Rob intend to tell her parents about their plans to marry when he returns from a visit to America. Rob, however, is tragically killed in a car crash and Harriet discovers she is pregnant. Her boss, Mr Gerald Hyde helps her and her secret is kept hidden.
Just before Christmas, Mr.Hyde told me that the Priest had organized a place for me in a convent in the West of Ireland where I could have my baby. I would go there in the New Year leaving a note telling my parents that I had gone to London to work.
Mr Hyde outlined a plan so that I could keep up the pretence.
“I have a sister, Dora, living there. I’ve spoken to her and if you enclose your letters home in an envelope addressed to her, she will post them back to Ballynoe. Dora is a kind-hearted soul and she will write to you as well, telling you all about London. This will set your parents’ minds at ease, knowing you are settled.”
Christmas that year was a sad gloomy time for all of us. I attended midnight mass with my parents and asked God for forgiveness for the lies I was about to tell them during the coming year.
We set out early on a cold morning in January to drive to the convent. I had placed a letter on the kitchen table telling my parents of my supposed trip to London and promised to get in touch when I was settled there.
I knew they would be deeply hurt by this sudden departure from home but to bring shame on them by staying would have been worse.
The drive seemed endless. We were mostly silent as Mr.Hyde negotiated the narrow roads in his Ford Anglia. We stopped at a country hotel for lunch and darkness was beginning to fall again by the time we reached the convent.
The mother superior greeted Mr.Hyde warmly.
“Please sit Mr.Hyde. You will, of course, take some tea. It has been a long journey and you must be exhausted.”
“Thank you, Sister Bernadette. I will have tea. In fact, I’m parched. I’m sure Harriet could do with some refreshment as well, couldn’t you, my dear.”
I saw the nun’s lips tighten as she crossed the room and pressed a bell on the wall. A young postulant appeared.
“Show the girl to her dormitory, then tell Sister Agnes we will require tea. Mr.Hyde and I have business to discuss.”
“Goodbye, Mr.Hyde and thank you for everything,” I managed to say while walking towards the open door.
Reluctant to turn to the next page of the journal, I closed my eyes just to rest them. It was just for a moment, but tired out, I soon fell asleep. About an hour later when I woke, my throat was dry and sore. The book had slipped to the floor.
Getting out of bed, I put my feet into slippers and went downstairs to get a hot drink. My head throbbed and I felt utterly miserable once more.
In the kitchen, as I waited for the kettle to boil, I thought about the journal and Aunt Harriet's story. My reluctance to continue reading had something to do with the many programmes aired on tv and radio in recent years. The stories about those mother and baby homes were horrific. In the world of 2009 everyone was appalled at their revelations. I remember having to leave the room several times when they were shown. Those poor girls who had nowhere else to go had been treated very badly and with cruelty in some cases. I could hardly bear to think about it. I was afraid that the same fate might have befallen Aunt Harriet. I wasn't sure I wanted to read about it if it had.
In my head, she was no longer the cranky old woman we all resented. I now thought of her as the young girl who had fallen in love, been traumatised by loss and grief, and was about to give birth only to lose her baby as well. Would she also have been subjected to bullying and cruelty? I didn't know if I could bear it if that was the case.
I sipped my drink and chided myself. I was doing a degree in English at UCC but my real dream was to do a master's in journalism. Curiosity would never be a problem for me, but did I have the stomach to search for the truth despite how unpleasant it might turn out to be. I pictured the distressed women bravely telling their heartbreaking stories to the journalists. Sure, I would be crying with them, I thought. Some journalist, I'd make. I went back up the stairs and got into bed. I placed the notebook on the duvet next to me.
I wondered if Mr Ernest Hyde knew the role his father played in Harriet's life and Gordon's adoption. Did Aunt Harriet tell him? Why could he not find Gordon? How hard was he trying?
There was nothing else for it. I would have to persevere and continue reading the journal. I opened it again.
I followed the small silent nun as she led me across a black and white tiled hallway. It was a dark gloomy place, the only sound the swishing of the young girl’s white habit brushing along the floor. Down poorly lit corridors and up flights of stairs we went until we reached the very top of the building. Here the silence was broken by the sound of babies crying. We passed the nursery and entered a long room lined on both sides with beds. A girl knelt beside each bed, head down, hands clasped around rosary beads. They murmured the responses as a tall nun paced the room giving out the prayers. Noticing us, she nodded at the postulant who scurried away like a frightened ghost. I stood there with my suitcase until the rosary was finished. The tall nun walked towards me and pointed towards a bed at the end of the room, then left. I later learnt her name was Sr. Imelda.
I was grateful for the privacy afforded by the curtains around the bed. It was the first time I had ever slept anywhere other than at home in Ballynoe. I cried myself to sleep.
Mr.Hyde’s sister wrote to me often, describing London and telling me about life in that city. I had a constant supply of new things to write about to my parents and so we kept the subterfuge going. I had been told from the outset that my baby, when born, would be adopted. I knew by then it was the only way I could survive to return home and pick up the threads of my life.
The months in the home, at last, gave me the privacy, if only in a curtained cubicle, to grieve for my beloved Rob. Soaking my pillow at night I cried the tears that had for so long been unshed. I cried too for my baby, a baby I would have loved as I had loved Rob, totally and unconditionally. I sometimes thought I would die from the crying and the grief. The pain never left me, subsiding during the day, only to return again in the hours of quiet darkness.
My baby came into the world on a bright cold day in May. Sister Imelda placed the tiny little boy into my arms and my heart filled with love for him instantly. I never wanted to let go of him, not even for a minute. I sat up straighter in the bed and clasped him to me.
“I’ve changed my mind; I want to keep my baby,” I said immediately.
The young postulant beside the bed gently pushed me back on the pillows and said, "you know that's not possible. You signed over your baby when you entered this home. Arrangements are already in place for his adoption.”
“No, no, never,” I cried as Sr. Imelda came nearer and made to take him from me. I twisted this way and that, not wanting her to touch him.
“Stop this nonsense at once. You’re a very lucky girl. Normally girls like you have to stay here for at least a year to pay off the debt they owe us? In your case, Mr.Hyde paid over a lot of money so that you can walk out of here 6 weeks from now.”
I screamed at her. "No, no, I'll never give him up. I'll manage somehow. Go away. Go away.
A sharp slap across the face shocked me into silence. Leaning over the bed and forcing my hands apart, she took my precious child and walked to the door. I shouted after her and begged her to make sure that my son would be named 'Gordon'. It was Rob's father's name. She muttered something about passing along the message as she swept from the room. It was over, but it seemed my heart was broken all over again.
Many times after that day, I thought of my mother’s grief for her own lost son. I also thought of Rob’s mother far away in America. Though they could speak of their grief, I knew I would never be able to speak of mine.
Mr.Hyde collected me from St. Martha’s and he drove to Dublin Airport. He handed me a ticket for the flight to London, and a ticket for my sea crossing from Fishguard to Cork one week later. I had written to my parents telling them of my wish to come home and my disenchantment with life in London. They knew the date of my arrival in Cork but I worried about the reception I might receive. My sudden departure must have hurt them deeply, and their letters to me up to now were stilted and brief. Before leaving me at the Airport, Mr.Hyde put £100 into my hand and said, “Buy yourself some style Harriet, get your hair done, and hold your head up when you arrive back in Ballynoe. Your position had to be filled of course, but if I can be of any help to you in the future you just have to ask.”
“Thank you, Mr.Hyde” I began, my eyes filling with tears. “I will never forget your kindness. Only for you, I don’t know what I’d have done.”
“Speak no more of it, he said and when you return to Ballynoe we need never again speak of any of what has happened.”
I was nervous arriving at London Airport, the crowds and the noise seemed overwhelming. Over the clamour, I heard my name being called by a tinny voice from the loudspeakers. At the Information desk a well- dressed lady introduced herself.
“Hello, Harriett. I’m Dora Rushworth.”
She was nothing like I had imagined. She was small and stout but had a round face with two big brown eyes.
I put out my hand in greeting but Dora kissed me on both cheeks and linking arms she led me out to the car park. We drove to her home in Richmond. Her husband was equally welcoming and kind. During the week that followed, they took me to see the sights of London. We went shopping in Oxford Street and I did get my hair restyled. I felt relaxed and comfortable with them but there was one thing bothering me.
On the morning of my departure, I broached this with Dora.
“One of the nuns told me that your brother paid money so that I could leave when I did. I had no idea that girls would have to stay on and work there otherwise. I don’t know how I’m ever going to pay him back but I’m going to do so someday.”
“No Harriet. He wouldn’t want that. Believe me, I know. You see I too went to that convent a long time ago but I had to stay there for nearly 3 years. Gerald was the only person I confided in at the time. He would have helped me then if he had been able. We were all young then. I came to London afterwards and never returned to Ireland. I made a good and happy life here for myself but you, you can return home and try to put it all behind you.”
We parted at Paddington Station where I was catching the train for Fishguard and that same evening I boarded the boat for Cork.
My cabin companion introduced herself as Miss Alice McCarthy. We briefly exchanged pleasantries and retired to our bunks. Naturally, Miss McCarthy had chosen the lower bunk. Amazingly, sleep came easily that night and I was not bothered at all by seasickness or the rumble of the engines below me. Waking early, I went up onto the deck of the m.v. Inishfallen . The ship’s rails felt cool under my hand and I leaned out to catch the first glimpse of land. It was a fine July day and my spirits were lighter than they had been for a long time.
I turned around and Miss McCarthy joined me at the railing.
“Look,” she said, pointing into the distance. “That’s Roche’s Point Lighthouse. We shall be passing it soon which means we are nearly home. Have you been on holiday, dear?
“No, I’ve been working in England for a few months.
“What kind of work.”
“I’m a teacher myself. I love it. Each year when the little ones come to school they are nervous, frightened even, but it is great to watch them grow and learn and blossom. Yes, I do love my job.”
We stood together at the railing watching the land grow ever closer until Miss McCarthy declared herself to be cold and went below to read her book. How quickly the lies had slipped off my tongue. This is it now, I thought. It will be lies, and more lies when I get home, but what choice do I have?
My new found peace threatened to desert me and the sorrow of the past year returned. It all seemed so unreal now in the face of a beautiful day and a soft breeze blowing. I watched as the brightly coloured houses of the town of Cobh climbed up the hill behind the Cathedral. With my eyes I drank in the sight, knowing it was unlikely I would ever make this journey again. As Blackrock Castle came into view, I decided to go below and get my luggage together. Miss McCarthy stood at the mirror struggling to secure her hat with a large hat pin.
“Will someone be meeting you?” she asked and feeling flustered, I busied myself with my bags before replying.
“No, I mean I don’t really know. I did send a telegram…”
My voice petered out.
“Well never mind, dear. I have my car parked on Penrose Wharf. I can give you a lift anywhere you want.”
“Thank you. A lift to the bus station would be nice.”
Feeling anxious, I picked my steps carefully down the gangway and didn’t notice my parents standing on the quay wall. Before I knew it they were hugging and kissing me.
“Oh Harriett, we thought we had lost you for good.” My mother was crying.
“Welcome home child. I’m glad you came to your senses. That place is not right for a young girl like you.” My father’s voice was gruff but I knew he was pleased and relieved to see me.
A Morris Minor car passed us and beeped its horn. Miss McCarthy waved as she drove off.
On our way to the bus station, my mother caught my arm.
“Harriett, love, I know you might feel that we took no interest in you before you went away but we were lost, lost in our grief. I’m so sorry and your father was beside himself while you were away.”
An idea had been forming in my head and now I blurted it out.
“I’ve never really liked office work but I think teaching might be where my talents lie. It would mean going away again though, but it wouldn’t be so far and I’d be home very often.”
“If it’s what you want child, then we’ll be happy to do all we can to help you.”
We were crying and laughing at the same time as we walked along to catch the bus to Ballynoe.
I started in the Teacher training college the following September and returned home during the holidays. Because of my parents’ age and dependency on me, I was considered favourably for a position in a school not far from Ballynoe.
I re-established contact with Tom’s widow, Sarah and she was agreeable that I could go to Dublin and bring the two boys down for a few weeks during the summer holidays. They used to run through the fields like wild goats. I enjoyed watching their carefree play and my mother loved to feed them up at the end of the day. I often saw the old smile return to her wrinkled face and my father too, relaxed of an evening, enjoyed telling them ghost stories. Those were happy times.
As the years passed and we all grew older contact dwindled until we finally lost touch again. However, when John and his family came and settled here in Ballynoe I was overjoyed. It felt good to have family nearby. I had been lonely for many years.
Well, I have come to the end of my story. I can say that the memory of the wonderful, unselfish kindness afforded me by Mr.Hyde and his sister has been the most inspiring and sustaining memory of my life. I never forgot my beloved Rob of course and never had any desire to meet or marry another man. I thought often of the whereabouts and circumstances of my son and knew, as my mother had known, that the pain of the loss of a child never really leaves. You just learn to live with it.
Rob’s parents arranged for the publication of his book and though maybe not a bestseller, it was, in my opinion, an excellent book. There is a copy of it in the bookcase in the den. I often take it down and read the words I now know almost by heart and for a little while I am transported back to those happy times long ago.
The journal ended but I knew the story had not. I felt excitement building in me. I jumped out bed and dragged my jeans on over my pyjamas. Pulling a sweatshirt over my head, an image of the many boxes of books in the hallway of Aunt Harriet’s house flashed before me. Would I be able to find the book, I wondered. I didn’t even know the name of it. However hopeless the task seemed, I was determined to try and find it. Clattering down the stairs, shoes untied I almost tripped in my haste to get the keys of the house. Throwing on a jacket, I took Jamie’s mountain bike and started to pedal furiously across the village.
Once inside the door of Aunt Harriet’s house, I knew deep disappointment. The hall was empty. Oh! My God, I thought they've all been sent to the library or the second-hand shop. I would never know the title of the book or what the story had been about. The icy dampness of the house seemed to seep into my bones. I began to sneeze and sniffle feeling weak and miserable. Drifting aimlessly around the house, I went into the den and flopped down into Aunt Harriet’s old chair. I curled my feet beneath me and thought of the improbability of locating the book now. Then I noticed a little shelf along the side of the fireplace containing some books. It had been hidden from view by the armchair. Scanning the authors’ names, I found it. “The Rippling Water” by Robert McHugh. Inside on the flyleaf, there was a dedication; “For Harry” it read. Below there were some lines from a poem. I remembered them from my school days.
‘When you are old and grey and full of sleep
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once’ (William Butler Yeats)
I sat there holding the book, visualizing all that had happened in the past, the love, and the sadness of it all. I sat there until my fingers were stiff with the cold and I began to shiver. Back at home, I slipped, fully clothed, under the duvet and drifted into an uneasy sleep. Dreams of a young girl pedalling her bike through the countryside, laughing and happy became mixed up with a frosty old lady banging her walking stick on the rungs of the chairs.
I woke and sat up in the darkened room still hearing the clattering noise. It was Louise and Catherine on the stairs.
"Izzy, Izzy, wait 'till you see the bargains we got."
White paper bags with the words 'sale' in large red letters littered my bed.
"Look at this blue top. Doesn't it go perfectly with these jeans?"
I watched as they exclaimed over every item, fitting everything on, prancing around the room, completely oblivious to my lack of enthusiasm. Their own excitement was enough and I smiled in spite of myself.
When we all trooped down for dinner, my mother looked at me with kind eyes.
“Are you feeling any better now, love?"
“Still the same, really.”
“You seem very quiet tonight.”
“I read Aunt Harriet’s journal today. I can’t get it out of my head. It’s all so sad.”
“Tell us, tell us.” The girls were all agog.
“Maybe later.” I wasn’t ready yet to let go of the world I had briefly entered into during the day.
After dinner. Mam gave me a hot drink and some Paracetamol and packed me back to bed. I slept a dreamless sleep until morning.
The following day was Sunday and after lunch, I went upstairs and brought down the journal. I also brought Rob McHugh’s book. I showed them the book first and pointed out the dedication on the flyleaf.
“Go on,” said my mother. "I know you're dying to read it to us.”
And so I did, although Jamie became bored immediately and asked to go play on his X box.
When I had finished I looked around the room. My mother wiped away a tear.
“The poor woman. Those were awful places that so many girls went to. Sure it has been all over the television for the last few years. I hope she didn’t suffer too much. She doesn’t say anything about how she was treated.”
“What was wrong with the people back then?” Louise’s contribution didn’t require an answer.
Catherine was rubbing her hand over the cover of the book. It showed the silhouette of a couple standing by a lake with lush countryside in the background.
Dad had been very quiet. I imagined he was thinking about the past. Then softly he said, “Gordon would be my first cousin. He would be only 5 years younger than me. I wonder if he is still here in Ireland.”
“Have we any first cousins, Dad?” Catherine asked. “Where is Uncle Dan?”
“Dan went a bit wild when he was young. He broke my mother’s heart. He walked out one night after a row and we never heard from him again.”
“Haven’t you got cousins in Galway?” My mother filled the silence.
“Sure they’re all ancient,” Catherine replied.
“Isn’t Orla, about your age, Isobel?”
“She’s a lot older than me. The last time I met her she kind of ignored me. I think she goes to UCG. I see her on Facebook sometimes.”
“Why don’t we ever visit them?” Louise now joined in.
“You know, you’re right Louise. Time slips by so fast. We should think about going up for a visit later on in the year.”
Dad was nodding in agreement.
“Yes, we might do that. It’s true we should keep in touch with our families. It was terrible that my mother died not knowing Dan's whereabouts.”
“Just like Aunt Harriet and her son,” I said.
“Oh dear, we’ve all become sad in ourselves. I’ll put on the kettle. A cup of tea and a slice of carrot cake will cheer us up.” Mam headed to the kitchen.
Dad stood up and stretched. “It was good that we settled in Ballynoe, not only for ourselves but also for Harriet. At least she had some sort of family life with us.
I knew that Aunt Harriet’s wish that we might think of her a little differently had been fulfilled. I wondered if her son would ever be found. I thought a lot about that late into the night