STORM OVER MERSEYSIDE
by SARAH ASHTON
2005© All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or any parts thereof in any form or by any media without written permission of the author is strictly prohibited
IN LOVING MEMORY OF MY PARENTS
The historic events in this novel from 1914-1941 are true. In my quest to complete this book I have given, to the best of my ability, an accurate account of history as it occurred. The story is set in Liverpool, England. It is a work of fiction and solely of my imagination. At the turn of the twentieth century, Liverpool was a thriving seaport where the great steamships of the day reigned supreme. It was a city rich in wealth and ethnic cultures. It was a city teeming with slums.
To appreciate the significance of the story, I have revealed the living conditions of the poor on Merseyside during the years of 1914 onward, depicting the utter misery suffered by so many. Any similarities of the characters to persons living or deceased, excluding one, my father, are purely coincidental, and not meant to reflect in any manner to cause harm or distress. I have added or modified some areas, places and street names to enhance the story line. I have also taken the reader to County Limerick, Ireland, where part of the story takes place. It is also the birthplace of my mother's parents.
Much of the information regarding Liverpool, during World War II, came from parent's own experiences and memories. My father was in the Royal Navy and served on several Destroyers. He took an active part in the rescue of the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk in 1940. He was also on escort duty on the convoys to Russia in 1941. My mother had several young children at that time and worked nights in an ammunition factory in the town of Kirkby, several miles from Liverpool. She, like many other women around the country, helped on local farms during the day. The docks on either side of the River Mersey were important seaports during the war for naval and merchant ships, bringing in much-needed supplies to aid in the war effort. German aircraft heavily damaged both ports during 1940-1941, yet both still managed to function for British and allied shipping.
In researching for this story, I found the war chronicles, and my parent's personal recollections, fascinating. I took a profound interest in what occurred on Merseyside, and marvelled at people's ability to remain cheerful and warm-hearted in the face of such adversity. Especially when so many suffered from the effects of poverty, with little to look forward to except an uncertain and apprehensive future. I praise their spirit and fortitude. My parents were a wonderful inspiration to me, with unfailing support and encouragement, whilst writing this novel. Regretfully they did not live to see its publication. They are sadly missed.
Sadie was born in a shabby room, in Liverpool, on a cold November night in 1914. Her mother a young Irish girl named Mary Kelly, lived in an impoverished dockland area, and was anxiously awaiting the return of her English soldier. It was a time when Great Britain and Germany where in the throes of a bloodied conflict on the fields of France. Both countries were sending thousands of patriotic young men into the savageness of battle and certain death. These courageous soldiers marched off to war with a song in their hearts and visions of early victory. Yet, there would be no quick end to the confrontation across the English Channel. The war in Europe would last for four long years.
For the women left behind it was a time of worry and heartache, and most often, their lives were fraught with destitution and despair. Yet all were hopeful that their men folk would return unharmed. Mary was one of these women but she would wait in vain. Little Sadie would never know the brave young man who had fathered her.
Sadie struggles to overcome fear and heartache when sickness claims the life of her beloved mother. Bewildered and afraid, she is taken across the Irish Sea to the sanctuary of her grandmother, but with the passing of time, again faces heartache and sorrow. Due to her youth, inexperience and grief compel her to make a dreadful mistake, a tragic error that will come back to haunt her. A mistake that would cost her dearly, with devastating results. She endures hardships that render her helpless and despairing, when left destitute and alone. She finds an inner strength to survive through friendships that help her cope with the grim realities of life's burdens and misfortunes. These friendships withstand the test of time, in an era when poverty and strife rips at the very heart of the poorer classes of England's population, stripping them of all hope and resolve.
Her courage is tested yet again when least expected. Her terror begins during the atrocities and evils of another armed conflict. Another war, that will plunge the entire world into complete and utter turmoil. A monstrous war, pitting men against men in bitter and inhumane acts of suffering and cruelty, a war that would last for six long years.
THIS NOVEL IS DEDICATED TO MY BEAUTIFUL SON, MARCUS WHO DIED TRAGICALLY, JANUARY 26, 2003 1970-2003
Thanks to my son, Paul, for all his love and support, and my son Marcus's two daughters, my lovely granddaughters, Laura and Holly, to whom I am very proud.
Also, I thank my sister, Barbara and her daughter, for getting me to hospital on November 8t h 2003 due to what we thought was a severe migraine attack, yet which turned out to be two brain aneurysms. I thank the surgeon and all the people who prayed for my recovery, but most of all I thank God every day, for giving me back my life.
Storms whipped in from the Irish Sea. By nightfall, gale force winds had turned the murky River Mersey was a heaving body of water. It surged in huge waves, crashing relentlessly against the perimeter barriers of the docks, cresting the stone walls that had protected the land for hundreds of years.
The odd ferry or two that ventured out on this night rocked precariously in the mounting swell. Weary deckhands staggered back and forth on the storm-tossed boats as water spilled over the bows and drenched the outer decks. The men were cold and soaked, and their inadequate winter clothing gave little protection from the frigid weather. Though miserable as it was, they where resigned to their lot and just grateful to have jobs in these troubled times. The few passengers on board huddled below in the confines of the boats, anxious to get home to their families and away from the piercing cold and the icy blasts of the gales.
Howling gusts brought a freezing rain that lashed on slate rooftops and splattered onto the near-deserted cobblestone streets of the Seaport City. For weeks, the powerful north winds had brought bitter Atlantic storms to this Northwest part of England, and it would be another long dreary winter for the poverty-stricken area.
At the south end of the city, in the district of the Dingle near the docks, which teamed with Victorian terraced houses; six-year-old Sadie Kelly peered anxiously from the rain misted window of the Smith's. Throughout the long day she had watched the opposite house, her fingernails chewed to the quick from worry. She watched the grey afternoon sky turn to dusk and the darkness of winter close in, around the soot-blackened houses of Merseyside.
The lashing rain eased for a short time but the winds continued. Sadie glanced again through the window and noticed the familiar figure of old Mr. Evans, the local lamplighter, slowly making his way up the street. He shuffled along the pavement, struggling to light the gas lamps along the way, which cast shadows along the blustery, deserted street. Part of a discarded newspaper, soggy from the rain, whipped around his feet then blew away with the wind. When the lamplighter moved out of sight, footsteps again echoed along the wet cobblestones. Sadie bit at her lip and watched in apprehension as the dark-clad figure of a man approached Number 14. With his head lowered and his overcoat pulled tightly, he fought against the biting wind. Father Murphy, from Saint Malachi's Parish Church, entered the house and closed the door. Moments later another man entered the house. It was Doctor Anderson, on his second visit to Sadie's home that day.
Sadie was scared and her eyes filled with tears. She watched for signs of movement from her home, but nothing stirred. Now the only sound in the street was the moaning of the wind and bursts of rain. She pressed her forehead against the windowpane, longing to be with her mother, who lay ill in the house across the street.
The last time she had seen her mother had been on Christmas Day. She had stood in the doorway of the room with Mrs. Smith and waved to the thin, pale woman who lay propped in the bed. Sadie was prevented from moving closer, as it was feared she too would get the sickness that now plagued her young mother. Sadie's gaze travelled the room. She saw the doctor standing by her mother's bed. Mrs. Williams and Mrs. Donnelly from down the street, sat at the other side. She looked back to the bed and gazed at the woman who lay there. It took a moment to recognise her mother. Sadie trembled and her eyes filled with tears. "M, mammy?" she whimpered, through quivering lips. Her mother smiled and whispered something from across the room. Sadie tried to pull away from Mrs. Smith and run to her mother's side, but Alice kept a firm grip on her hand. "No, luv, don't," she murmured gently. "Mammy's very poorly. She needs t' rest. Come away now, dear." A sob choked Sadie's throat. She took one last look at her mother before Mrs. Smith led her from the house.
Winter days passed into long winter weeks and Sadie kept watch on her home from across the street. She saw neighbours moving quietly in and out of the rooms, she and her mother occupied, at Number 14 Fletcher Street, where now, Mary Kelly lay dying. The women who attended to the stricken young girl wore long dark skirts that were shabby and frayed. They wore heavy shawls draped around their heads and shoulders, to ward off the icy rain and biting winds that blew in off the river. They spoke in hushed tones when they met in the street,
"It's a shame she has no family t' look after her…"
"Aye. It's pitiful t' see her like this. She's not long fer this world, poor luv…"
"I 'ope the child doesn't get the sickness, bless her little heart…"
These kindly neighbours had known for weeks, that they had done all they could for the unfortunate girl at Number 14. Now it was just a matter of time, before death released her from her suffering.
On that blustery Tuesday, Sadie peered as usual through the window towards her home, yet today seemed different. She did not understand why, but she was more afraid than ever. With each passing hour, there was increased activity at her home. She saw two nuns enter her home, the Sisters of Mercy, Mrs. Smith had called them. Sadie had seen them before and her fear intensified. She had watched while Mrs. Smith hurried back and forth between the two houses all day. Sadie had wanted to follow each time she left the house, had wanted to see her mammy, but anxiety kept her at the window.
When Mrs. Smith was at home, she tried to coax the child away, but Sadie refused to budge. Alice sat with her from time to time, smoothing back her untidy red hair. Sadie's doleful, frightened eyes stabbed at her heart each time she looked at them, dreading the words she would soon have to say.
Now Alice sat beside the hearth. She glanced around the shabby room and sighed tiredly. Her eyes misted with unshed tears. The fire was comforting, and should have warmed her, yet she shivered with cold. She felt chilled to the bone, as if someone had walked over her grave. She pulled her cardigan across her chest and stared into the flames, lost in thought. She remembered Mary's 22nd birthday was the following day and her heart ached in sadness and regret, knowing that the young girl would not live to see it.
Alice thought about their lives, she thought about her neighbours that seemed to be dropping from one illness or another like Mr. Jones who died last week of Influenza, and little David Andrews who died a month ago of the consumption. And others who were showing signs of the sickness that was now taking young Mary's life. She wondered who would be the next to fall ill, wondered on how much longer any of her family would survive. These days, it seemed her four daughters all had coughs and runny noses, but their father's hacking cough, worried her more. Yet the expense of medicine meant less food on the table for her family, and Bert's meagre wages never lasted from week to week.
Pulling herself from her thoughts, Alice glanced toward Sadie and wearily got up from her chair. She added some coal to the embers of fire, coughing from the smoke and ash that puffed out from the grate. She watched it for a moment, while it hissed then slowly licked into flames. She looked up and glanced at her reflection in the small, cracked mirror above the mantle. She was barely forty, but it seemed the face that stared back looked old and haggard. She'd been pretty once, she remembered. Pretty, lively and slim. However, eight children, five living, had left their mark. She stared at her bloodshot, weary eyes. The dark smudges underneath seemed permanently ingrained in her skin.
When she and Bert had married, twenty years before, he had called her his little china doll; such was her smooth porcelain complexion. Now it looked withered and lined, withered with the harshness of her life.
Strands of her greying hair had fallen from their pins and hung limply around her neck. She tucked them back behind her ears with hands that were rough and reddened. She stared at them for a moment, turning her wedding band around on her finger. It had belonged to Bert's mother. It wasn't worth much, yet it had come in handy at the pawnshop on occasion, when Bert was away for so long. Alice knew he would be furious if he ever found out, but that was a chance she would have to take.
She recalled her happiness the day Bert had placed it on her hand so long ago. They had been full of hope for the future, yet too young to realise the hard road that lay ahead for them. A harrowing road, which for years took them to over-crowded living conditions with relations, and along the way, searing heartache at losing three small children. Eventually, they had been fortunate to rent this two-up-two-down row house close to the docks.
However, the responsibility of taking in both their mothers, whose husbands had passed, and they themselves frail and ill, taxed all Alice's strength. It had been a blessing when they had eventually succumbed to death themselves. At least now her girls had their own bedroom; Alice sighed, even though they shared the one big bed. It was uncomfortable, and with little Sadie sharing it too, there wasn't much room, but at least they kept each other warm in the winter months. Alice knew they were luckier than many. At least they had their parent's battered furniture. Old it may have been, but a blessing that many others could only dream of having.
Yet, grateful though she was for her small comforts, somewhere in the depths of Alice's heart, she resented their dismal lifestyle. She sighed again and glanced back at her reflection. Perhaps that pretty girl has gone forever, she mused, ruefully. And not so much as a photograph to remind herself of how she had once looked. What did it matter? She sighed. Bert, bless his dear heart, still saw in her his little china doll, and that was good enough for Alice.
Mrs. Smith turned her thoughts to the waif sitting silently beside the window. "Come on, luv," she murmured tenderly, moving across the room. "It's cold and draughty here so let's sit by the fire." She touched the child's cheek, knowing her words of comfort meant nothing to the little one.
Sadie stared at her through large, fearful eyes. "When w, will I see me m, mammy, Mrs. Smith?" she whispered, her lips beginning to tremble.
Alice swallowed the lump that rose in her throat. "I don't know, dear." she replied gently. She brushed a hand across her eyes and sighed. She mentally blessed herself for lying; knowing Sadie would never see her mother alive again. The burden of having to tell this child that her mammy was dead weighed heavily on her heart. It was a distressing task that she faced, one, which had given her sleepless nights for months. However, she forced a smile upon her lips and stroked Sadie's hair. "Come on, now, luv," she coaxed. "Come away from the window. Your mammy wouldn't want yer t' catch cold, now would she, so let's sit by the fire, eh?" Sadie shook her head and turned again to stare through the glass.
Mrs. Smith had known the child since she was born, even assisted at her birth. It had been a long, painful labour for young Mary. Severe enough to leave lasting effects on her already delicate health. Yet, what Mary lacked in health, her courage gave her the will to keep going for her child. Alice had looked after Mary's baby when the young woman was well enough to work. Though Alice was tired and weary herself, she never minded having another child in the house and cared for Sadie like one of her own.
When Mary Kelly became ill with consumption, Alice took it upon herself to care for them both. "Someone's got t' help poor Mary an' her little one," she stated worriedly to her husband. "I just pray t' God, that Sadie's well looked after...when Mary passes on. Yer know I'd keep her with us, Bert, if I could."
Bert Smith, a one time burly soldier who had fought in France, agreed with his wife. "Aye, luv," he replied fondly. "You'd take in every orphan in Liverpool, if they'd let yer, but it's out of our hands. Her Grandmother will take her, you'll see. I'm sure Father Murphy will hear somethin' soon."
"I suppose so, Bert," Alice murmured. She mustered a tired smile and prayed that he was right. She looked into his tired eyes and her heart ached at his gaunt, lined face. He was too young to look so old, she sighed, but the war, and the utter devastation it had caused, had aged them all.
Mr. Smith was a good husband and father, and Alice knew how fortunate she was. He was only forty-two yet looked much older. Gone was the handsome, well-built man she had seen off to war five years earlier. In his place had returned this thin, weary-eyed shadow of his former self. He had a permanent stoop to his shoulders, and seemed forever haunted by the muddied and most often bloodied, death trenches of the battlefield.
Bert had been shot in his right shoulder just before the war ended; he also suffered the effects of poison gas so was shipped back to England to recover. Months later, when he was finally back at home, Alice had become pregnant with her eighth child. Anxiety had filled her heart at the thought of another mouth to feed. Another small child to raise when they had so little. "Heaven help us," she'd whispered, when realising her predicament. "What if Bert doesn't get better, what will become of us?" Concern about her developing pregnancy and her husband's health, overwhelmed her, but she kept her fears to herself.
Six months ago Bert had felt well enough to look for work and eventually got a job at the docks. However, Alice worried constantly at his daily struggle with pain and fatigue. To lose him now would destroy the family, and what little protection they had would vanish.
Since his return from France, Bert was quieter, more reserved. He refused to speak about the terrors of war, preferring to block those grim memories from his thoughts. Yet, at night, he played them out in his restless dreams, twitching and moaning, tossing and turning in his sleep. Alice agonised over his torment, knowing there was nothing she could do to help him. Nonetheless, she was thankful to have him home. Especially as so many women in the nation were left widowed, to carry on alone and penniless, with children to raise, like her two sister's-in-law, like the five women down the street, and like young Mary.
It had been over a year since the end of the Great War in Europe. This long and bitter conflict was the culmination of much unrest and unresolved battles, which had raged throughout the south-eastern European continent. Eventually exploding in Sarajevo on June 28th, in 1914, with the assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A young Bosnian, involved with a rebel group, known as 'The Black hand' whose aim was to free Bosnia from resented Austrian rule, was responsible for the slaying of the Duke and his pregnant wife. Incensed by this murderous deed, Austria retaliated with vicious swiftness to this man and his conspirators. Soon after, Serbia was given an ultimation. Total surrender was called for or war would be declared. The world was in shock. Although Serbia agreed to most of the terms set forth by Austria, absolute submission was rejected. Desperate peace talks ultimately broke down as Austria refused to negotiate, and on July29th Serbia was invaded. The more powerful nations of Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria, known as the Central Powers, promptly took advantage of this volatile situation, provoking other countries to side with or against each other. Ultimately, greed and the lust for control and dominance prevailed throughout the continent. It was no surprise when Germany declared war on Russia and German troops stormed through neutral Belgium, paving the way to invade France. Ignoring Britain's warning to withdraw from Belgium by midnight, on August 4, the German military marched on toward Paris. Consequently, Britain had no choice but to declare war.
With her allies of France and countries of the British Empire behind her, the flame of destruction was torched, lasting four vicious years. Eventually, almost fifty countries were involved in combat.
Russia, though on the side of the Allies, fought a harsh civil war within its own boundaries. Czarist ruler, Nicholas II, with his autocratic system, doled out severe punishment in the form of repression and persecution to those who opposed him. Millions despised him. Many militant groups sprang up in protest to his regime. Uprisings were common but were quickly suppressed by soldiers loyal to the Czar. Starvation and unemployment raged.
Due to his weakness to govern his country in a more democratic order, the revolution in 1917 caused suffering to millions, and the eventual downfall and murder of the Russian Royal family. With the murder of the Czar and his family, three noted radicals, Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin set the stage for a new Russia. Stalin would eventually rule with an iron fist. Feeling free to rule under his new Communist government named the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Yet, civil unrest, suspicion, conspiracy and carnage would plague the nation many years into the future under Stalin's rule.
The United States entered the war on the side of the Allies in 1917, giving much needed assistance to the weary allies. A year later, the world conflict ended.
The war had cost Britain dearly, with the lives of almost nine hundred thousand men. The country was left to cope with over two million wounded from the war. Yet, relief had spread throughout the land when a defeated, and humiliated Germany, signed the armistice for peace. This historic act took place on 11th of November 1918 in a railway carriage in France, signifying an end to all hostilities. Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II, fearing for his life after the mutiny of his navy and rebellion of his people, had fled to the Netherlands days before, leaving his country embittered and disillusioned at their conquered and leaderless land.
When the war was finally over, life for the poor and working class did not improve throughout the cities and towns of Britain, where poverty was still a major problem. Unsanitary, cramped conditions in the slums, caused widespread, uncontrolled disease. This scourge upon the masses would continue to haunt and plague the nation for many years to come.
The Smith's, along with countless others in Liverpool, were among these poor. Immense suffering went virtually unnoticed. Unemployment and inadequate, squalid housing made their day to day existence a constant battle for survival.
Although money was scarce for the Smith's, it made no difference to Alice to care for others in time of need, especially Mary and her daughter. Sadie was a good little girl. Was always happy and giggling, until four months ago. Now she was quiet and withdrawn, and had developed a nervous stammer, due to her mother's illness.
Mary Kelly had never enjoyed good health, but never let it bother her until these last few years. In 1916, her health deteriorated when she received news that Sadie's father had died in France at the battle of the Somme. Devastated at her loss, a light went out in Mary's heart for the rest of her short life.
Mary met Raymond Fagan in the village of Adare in 1914. He had been passing through after visiting Father Riley, a family friend, to inform him of his parent's death. On a chilly day in February, he spied Mary at the cemetery, visiting her father's grave. A hesitant conversation followed. Despite the cold, Raymond felt warmed at the sight of her and was smitten with her laughing eyes. He stayed on in a room at the Priest's house and he saw Mary whenever he could. Word soon spread that Mary Kelly was spending time with an Englishman. When Mrs. Kelly found out, she was furious, forbidding her daughter to see him again.
She did not approve of the nineteen-year old Liverpool lad and refused to entertain him at the cottage. To have an Englishman show up at her home when, just months before in Dublin, there had been more unrest against English rule, was more than she could stand. Ireland was a simmering keg of frustration, ready to explode in protest against the hated British government. There was the opposition to the Nationalist's in the north of Ireland, causing bitterness and hatred between countrymen.
Anger and fear beat in Mrs. Kelly's heart at the hostility she would encounter from Nationalists in the area.
She told him of her feelings three months later, when he turned up at her door and asked for her daughter's hand. She was even more against the match when he informed her that he planned to enlist in the British Army. She was incensed at the nerve of this young upstart and was unbending in her refusal.
The bold young man tried desperately to win over this hostile woman. Words intensified between them, yet Myra refused to give in. "Yer hardly know each other," she stated harshly, staring him down. "Yer have no business bein' here in the first place. Yer an' Englishman an' not welcome here, so go home. I've minded me own business all me life, an' now I'm the talk of the county over this."
"What does it matter if I'm English, or anythin' else?" he argued stubbornly. "Anyway, me grandparents were Irish, yer know," he added hotly. "They only moved t' Liverpool years ago so they wouldn't starve t' death over here. Besides, loads of Irish live in Liverpool…"
"It was the English Government that caused it all in the first place," Mrs. Kelly shot back fiercely. "Fer years an' years we've had t' put up with them. Is it any wonder that people leave or rebel against them."
"It wasn't my fault!" he protested vehemently. "Why do ordinary people get blamed for what they've no control over? I don't make the rules, Mrs. Kelly. I'm just tryin' t' make a livin' for meself, like everyone else."
"The government over there would like t' see us all dead," she added, ignoring him. "Yer don't know what we've had t' put up with, lad. Yer just don't know."
"Don't blame me for it all. It had nothin' t' do with me. I wasn't even born. An' after all, Mrs. Kelly, I am a Catholic, an' I don't go in much for politics..."
"They do in these parts, so they do. It could cause me no end of misery an' put us all in danger," she snapped. "So no good will come of it, lad. There's too much trouble as it is. Go home, before yer get yerself killed."
"Please, Mrs. Kelly, don't take it out on me…"
"Look, lad, jest go home where yer belong."
"I just want Mary t' be me wife, Mrs. Kelly..."
"I said no, an' I mean no!" she interrupted angrily, moving towards the door. "Yer should never have come here, so yer shouldn't. Yer best be off. Go on, now, go."
Raymond followed her to the door. "Father Riley said he'd come an' see yer," he added hopefully, lowering his voice. "Y'know, t' talk things out..."
"Father Riley?" she spat sarcastically, turning to face him. Her cheeks grew hot with anger. "An' he's supposed t' change me mind, is he? He buried me husband an' babies. It was the only time I ever saw him, except when he was beggin' fer money. I've never asked anyone for anythin', especially the church, so yer can tell him t' stay away. An' another t'ing..." she added, tightening her lips. "Mary's far too young t' be tinkin' of marriage, so she is. She's been sickly all her life so I won't jest let her go runnin' off with a stranger…"
"I'm not a stranger, Mrs. Kelly…"
"Yer are t' me, lad, an' I've no mind t' get t' know yer." Myra added irritably. "Mary should never've taken up with the likes of yer. She's no sense, so she hasn't…no sense at all, always flittin' an' trillin' about the place like some sort of fairy…"
"I'll take good care of her, Mrs. Kelly," he replied confidently, straightening his shoulders. "I luv Mary…"
Mrs. Kelly stared at him in disbelief. "Luv?" she shot back cynically. "An' what would a lad like yerself know about luv? Yer parents are dead, an' yer can hardly take care of yerself, let alone a wife. An' if I did give me blessin' t' this union..." she went on icily. "What d'yer think you'd live on, eh, this luv yer have fer each other?" She gave a mocking laugh. "That won't get yer very far lad, believe me it won't. Not when the money runs out an' the wee one's start comin' an' yer finally turn t' the drink. Aye, I can jest see it all now…"
"I don't drink an' I don't smoke." Raymond replied, flustered by her scathing tone. Yet he maintained his composure. "I know I don't have much to offer just yet, Mrs. Kelly," he said determinedly. "But I'll have me army pay. An' Mary will be in safe hands, I promise. All I'm askin' for is yer blessin'..."
"No, lad," she said sharply, cutting him off. "I can't give me blessin' t' summit I don't agree with. But, if yer still alive, after this war, then yer can court her proper, that's if there's an Ireland t' come back to." Myra pursed her lips in indignation. "Yer best be leavin' now," she said coldly. "Yer best get yerself back t' England where yer belong, before yer get inter worse trouble 'round here." She ended the meeting abruptly. "I've nothin' more t' say t' yer." Without another word, she showed him to the door, closing it firmly behind him. Mary had listened in tears at the top of the stairs.
After that heated confrontation, Mrs. Kelly refused to speak of Raymond again. However, unbeknown to her, Mary was pregnant. Young, headstrong, and craving her independence, Mary had no time for politics, nor Ireland's struggle for independence. All she wanted was to be with Raymond. She was determined to break free from her mother's rigid ways.
Desperate to be together, the young couple made secret plans to flee to England and slipped away in the middle of the night. Weeks later, Mrs. Kelly received a letter from Mary, saying they were in Liverpool. Myra was incensed. She replied, stating she wanted nothing more to do with her daughter.
Raymond enlisted as soon as they arrived and found two rooms for them before heading off to his regiment. On August 4th, war was declared and Raymond was shipped out to France. He left Mary enough money for several weeks rent and food, until he was able to send her more. Mary settled in to her new home but was plagued with guilt over what she had done. She wrote long, remorseful letters to her mother, hoping she would forgive her. She wrote more frequently when Sadie was born in November, but never received a reply.
In 1916, while the war in Europe raged on, Mary received a telegram saying Raymond had been killed at the Battle of the Somme. She was overcome with grief. She wrote a mournful letter to her mother, begging for her forgiveness. She pleaded to come home, but her mother would not relent. Mrs. Kelly was unyielding. She said as much in the one other letter she sent.
"We reap what we sow, Mary," she had written piously. "Me door is closed t' yer. An' wantin' t' come home with an English child in yer arms, with all the trouble goin' on here...could get me run off me land. Or worse, we'd be murdered in our beds." She ended the letter, by adding bitterly. "Yer brought this shame upon yerself. An' t' think I named yer after the Blessed Virgin in Heaven. Herself bein' so Holy an' good, an' yerself, Mary, nothin' but a shame an' disgrace. So raise your child on yer own. Yer'll get no help from me."
Mary was heartbroken. She longed to return to the sanctuary of her home, but her mother's bitterness was too strong. She wondered if she should just take a chance and return. However, with the uprising that took place in Dublin at Easter, between the English government and Irish rebels, who wanted total home rule for Ireland, she was afraid to go back. Afraid of being caught up in the fighting, between the Nationalists and the detested Black and Tans, a notorious division of the British army, which used brute force to repress the locals. The fighting was so ferocious, that she could understand her mother's fears, yet she yearned for her homeland.
Now she was destitute. She had little choice but to stay on in the sparsely furnished rooms she had shared so briefly with Raymond. She managed to find employment over the years as a domestic in several large homes. Eventually, she gained a position as maid to Mrs. Hadley, a local solicitor's wife. The Hadley's were quite taken with their Irish maid and enjoyed her humour, especially Mrs. Hadley who was of Scottish origin. The work was hard and tiring on the frail young woman, yet she had no other choice. She knew she had to keep going for the sake of her child. Always cheerful and smiling, Mary never allowed her personal heartache and despair to affect her daughter.
When she first realised something was wrong with her health; Mary ignored the warning signs, thinking it was overwork and not enough sleep that was causing her problems. Yet a drastic loss in weight and persistent cough, left her weak and drained of energy. The throbbing pain in her lungs was becoming too severe to ignore. Alice urged her to see a doctor, but Mary foolishly disregarded her advice, afraid she would lose her position at the Hadley's. If that happened, she would be utterly destitute and her child, most likely, removed from her care.
Mrs. Hadley, concerned about Mary's welfare, questioned her on the state of her health. Mary broke down and admitted defeat. She resigned from her job, telling the Hadley's she was returning to Ireland.
However, the lung disease progressed at an alarming rate. The coughing intensified and she began to cough up spots of blood. Distressed, Alice wrote to Mrs. Kelly, informing her of her daughter's illness. She asked Mary's mother to come at once, but did not receive a reply. Worried neighbours offered their assistance. These neighbours, along with Mrs. Smith, took turns in sitting with Mary during the day and staying with her at night. They took some of their own precious coal for the fire, to keep it lit continually. Mr. and Mrs. Hadley, upon hearing their former maid was still in town and was very ill, also stopped in to see her. They brought a box of food and ordered more fuel from the local coal merchant.
They were appalled at her condition and immediately sent for the local doctor, but Mary was far beyond the doctor's help. All he could do was try to keep her comfortable.
By now, Sadie was living with Mrs. Smith, but was taken back each afternoon to see her mother from the doorway. It was the highlight of Sadie's day. Yet the doctor had reservations and spoke to Mrs. Smith.
Days later, Alice was feeding Mary and gently told her what he doctor had advised. "It's for the best, Mary, luv," she cautioned. "The child shouldn't be around yer at this time."
"I, I know I'm d, doomed," Mary wept, heaving on the mutton broth. "I, I know she shouldn't be with m, me, but she all I've got." Desolation haunted her eyes. "I'm scared, Alice. I'm dyin', I know that, an' I've come t' terms with it. But it's leavin' me child…I can't stand the thought of it…I just want t' scream…"
"I know, luv," Alice soothed, holding her hand. "I'll look after her, don't worry."
"What would I have done without yer," Mary whispered, squeezing Alice's fingers.
"That's what friends and neighbours are for," Alice smiled. "Now, try an' eat, luv." She held the bowl while Mary sipped the warm broth.
Mary took several spoonfuls then paused. "Ask Father Murphy to write t' me mother, Alice. She'll listen t' him…"Her words broke off when heaving sickness overwhelmed her. Her wasted body shook uncontrollably.
Alice quickly placed the bowl on a nearby stool. She held the sick woman in her arms while spasms of coughing discharged from her lungs. She put some rags to Mary's mouth as she retched, coughing up the meagre contents of her stomach. It was difficult these days to keep anything down. When it was over, Alice took the stained rags and threw them onto the fire. She returned to Mary's side.
Mary gazed wearily at her friend. "God forbid that S, Sadie should get sick," she gasped weakly, lying back on her pillow. "God Almighty, Alice, I, I'm bein' punished fer me sins. I, I feel responsible fer Raymond's death…If I hadn't pressured him t' take me away…none of this would've happened. If there hadn't been any t, troubles, we could've married in Ireland. Me mother was right. I sh, should never have left…"
"Now, Mary, don't talk like that, luv," Alice chided tenderly. "Yer weren't to blame for poor Raymond bein' killed, he would have joined the Army even if he hadn't known you. An' yer can't blame yerself for what's goin' on in Ireland. It's just rotten luck that yer got the sickness. If you'd seen the doctor sooner, luv, yer could've gone t' hospital..."
"Aye," Mary whispered brokenly. "But would it have saved me? Those c, consumption wards are the worst place's t' be..." She wearily closed her eyes. Beads of perspiration formed on her forehead. "You'll keep S, Sadie, then, Alice," she panted. "Keep her till me mammy c, comes. She'll come, I know sh, she will."
Alice looked at the hopeful eyes of Sadie's mother. She smiled sadly; knowing there had been no word from Ireland. She wiped Mary's brow with a damp cloth and her heart ached for this pitiful girl. She knew Mary was only deluding herself regarding her mother. She cleared her throat, before answering softly. "I hope she will, luv. In the meantime, Sadie can stay with us. She's used t' me, an' it's better that the authorities don't get hold of her. An' if yer mother doesn't want her, then I'll keep her meself."
Later that afternoon, Sadie cried in her mother's arms. She clung to her in fear. "No, m, mammy… let me c, come back!
The stricken young woman held her sobbing daughter and anguish tore at her failing heart. She held back her own tears of agony as she tried to console her weeping child.
Mary gazed at her daughter and wiped away her tears. "It'll be alright, luv," she soothed quietly, stroking her hair. "I'll have them move me bed near the window, so I can see yer at Mrs. Smith's."
Sadness and despair wrenched at Mary's heart. She realised this would be the last time she would hold her child, the last time she would hear her voice. The last time she would soothe away her fears. There was nothing she could do to ease her daughter's pain. It broke her heart to know that she would soon leave her behind. Mary's sorrow was as consuming as the disease that was killing her; knowing Sadie would face an uncertain future without her. She would miss so much of her childhood, and never have the pleasure of seeing her grow into a woman.
Yet concerned for Sadie's health, Mary gently eased her into Alice's arms. "Go on, now, luv," she said tenderly. "Be a good girl an' go with Mrs. Smith. Go on, now." she coaxed. She swallowed hard, and forced herself to smile. She watched as Alice led Sadie away. Bleakness overwhelmed her and tears flowed down her cheeks. She lay back on her pillow and wept as misery surged within. She closed her eyes and prayed that her mother would find it in her heart, not reject her only grandchild.
Bert Smith moved Mary's bed several days later so Sadie could see her mother from across the street. Though as Mary became weaker, she could no longer sit up and look through the glass. When the weather grew worse, her bed was moved closer to the tiny fireplace across the room. Sadie was distraught, and spent every spare moment at the window, hoping for a glimpse of her mother. Eventually, Mary became so weak she could hardly sit up in bed, yet Alice was constantly at her side, doing what she could for the gravely ill young woman.
Mrs. Smith glanced at Sadie again. She watched while the child chewed nervously on her fingernails, whispering and mumbling to herself. Alice's heart was heavy with despair. Her anger seethed at the unfairness of a fate that had doomed them all to a life of sickness and poverty. She sighed and eased from her chair. She moved to the baby's cot by the fireplace, were her two-month-old baby cried lustily. The boy Bert had longed for when Alice had lost three boys at birth already. She smiled tenderly at the screaming infant and wrapped a blanket snugly around his wriggling form, murmuring soothing words.
"There now, me little precious...hush now, mammy's here." She gently lifted her son into her arms and moved back to the armchair beside the fire. Settling down, she placed him at her breast. She looked lovingly at her son. He had a fuzz of dark hair, like her other children, and had his fathers chin. She stroked the pink softness of his face, enjoying a brief moment of contentment. It should have been a relaxing time for mother and child, yet concern overwhelmed her. Anxiety etched in the deep lines on her face. She worried on how much longer her milk would last for him, worried on what the future would hold, for him and his sisters.
Sadie looked in Mrs. Smith's direction, then turned to keep her vigil at the window. Rain spattered at the glass and ran down the pane, making it difficult to see as she peered at the house across the street. A small lamp lighted part of the window, and ghostly shadows moved, behind the cheap, thin curtains beyond. While she silently watched, Sadie could not know, that her life would soon be changed forever.
Some time later, Mrs. Smith put the sleeping baby back in his cot. She changed his nappy and covered him gently with blankets. Alice took the soiled cloth to the tiny scullery, to soak it in a bucket of water. She looked in on her daughters, who were amusing themselves in the back room.
She then set about preparing a pan of barley soup, using ham bones bought at the butchers the day before. Her mind wondered to thoughts of Mary while she washed a few vegetables under the slow-running tap. Remembered when she had first met her and Raymond. Remembered how they cared about each other. Before he left for the front, Raymond asked Mrs. Smith to watch over his little sweetheart. They would wed when he returned, he'd promised Mary. But he was dead, and now, his sweetheart was dying. Left behind was a child so confused and disturbed by it all that Alice worried on the little one's state of mind. She sighed heavily feeling utterly wearied. Life for the poor was truly unjust at the best of times she mused cynically. And at the worst of times it was downright hateful.
Alice's thoughts returned to the moment. The running water was ice-cold on her reddened hands. She filled a pan with water, added a turnip; some carrots and barley, knowing this meal would have to last them for several days. While the soup was simmering, she made a pot of tea and set out the dishes for the meal.
She headed back to the parlour just as her husband arrived home from work. Alice cringed when she heard him coughing in the hall. Her stomach lurched at the sound. Mr. Smith waited until the spasm abated, then wearily entered the room. He was shivering with cold and his clothes were damp from the rain.
"Hello, luv," he said tiredly. "Nasty night." He took off his wet coat and placed it on a hook behind the door.
"Hello, dear," Alice replied fondly, handing him a towel to dry himself. "Aye, it's a bad one t'night. Come an' sit by the fire t' warm yerself," she urged. "Yer must be freezin'."
"Aye," Bert shivered. "It hasn't let up all day. It's been terrible at the docks." He rubbed the towel over his head and face then peeked at his sleeping son. He glanced in Sadie's direction, and looked questioningly at his wife. "Any change, luv?" he asked softly.
"Worse," Alice murmured. "I was over there earlier," she added resignedly. "I think it'll probably be t'night, bless her heart. Father Murphy an' the doctor are there now. I'm goin' back over. Mrs. Jones an' Mrs. Mack have been there all afternoon an' need t' get home."
"Bad business, this is." Bert replied quietly, placing the towel beside the hearth. He rubbed his cold hands then stoked the fire with more coal. He eased into the armchair and pulled off his boots, sighing heavily. He looked in Sadie's direction. It seemed the child knew she would never see her mammy again. He turned to his wife.
"She shouldn't be at the window all the time, yer know," he chided, glancing again at Sadie. "She should be with the other kids."
"Aye, but leave her be, luv," Alice murmured. "An' tell our girls not t' bother her. Just leave her be. Lord only knows, how I'm goin' t' break it t' her." She reached for her shawl, wrapping it around her shoulders. "There's a fresh potta tea out back, luv." she smiled, moving towards the door. Before she could open it, her daughters entered the room chattering to each other. Alice motioned them to be quiet. She murmured instructions to her eldest, concerning the evening meal, then left the house.
Bert Smith spoke quietly to his children for a few moments, then headed for the scullery to wash off the day's dirt and grime from the warehouse. Sadie waited until no one was watching and slipped from the room. In the hallway she put on her coat and boots, opened the front door and stepped out into the wintry night. She hesitated and turned to go back inside, but the overwhelming need to be close to her mother, sent her running across the dark, wet street to her home. She quietly let herself in and hid under the stairs.
It was a night to be indoors by a cosy fire, but for the six-year old child it was a night of terror as she huddled under the stairwell. The only source of light in the passage flickered dimly from the gas light on the wall. Her small, cold hands covered her ears to drown out the deep, wheezing sounds that came from the front room.
Her body trembled when the sounds intensified, seeming to keep pace with the moaning wind. "M…mammy," she whimpered, terrified of the night. "M, mammy, I'm s, scared!" She drew further into the shadows when spasms of coughing erupted from the room. Then there was silence. Even the wind seemed to cease for a moment, as if it too, were waiting.
She heard the soothing murmur of familiar voices from within, but she was bewildered and afraid. She sobbed quietly in the stillness that followed. Her own rapid breathing was the only sound in the passage. Heavy rain lashed at the front door and beat against the small, grimy window above. The old terraced house seemed to rattle and groan under howling gusts that seemed never-ending to Sadie.
Floorboards creaked in the empty rooms upstairs. The Merchant Seaman that lived there had been away at sea for a long time. His wife, upon hearing of Mary's illness, had been so afraid for her own health and the health of her baby that she went to stay with her sister in Birkenhead. "It's not that I don't like Mary…" she stated to Alice Smith before she left. "But I have t' think of me own little one," she worried. "I don't want t' be here by meself as my Jimmy won't be 'ome for months. There's nothin' I can do for her, yer know, bless her heart. The poor girl will dead in a few weeks." Alice knew that consumption had no bounds. It could afflict any of them, without warning, at any time. All she could do was to agree with the frightened woman and wish her well.
Sadie cried softly in the darkness. Her fear grew and she began to tremble. From somewhere out on the River Mersey, a mournful foghorn resounded across the city. Its echo seeming to call out to all on the sorrow and misery that death brought forth in the darkness of night.
The little girl shivered and sobbed quietly for her mother. "M, mammy, mammy, p, please get b, better...please!" Her toes tingled with cold inside her old, worn boots, which had been handed down from Mrs. Smith's girls. There were holes in the soles and her feet were wet from the rain. She tucked her thin legs under her damp coat to keep them warm in her cold, draughty hiding place and waited.
The door to the front room finally creaked open and a gush of warm stale air penetrated the passage. In the dimness of the narrow hall, Mrs. Smith and Doctor Anderson stepped from the room and quietly closed the door. Sadie pressed further into the shadows, straining to hear their whispered conversation but her young mind was unable to grasp all they were saying, except for snatches from Mrs. Smith. "The poor soul…so sad…her bein' so young…" Followed by the deep voice of the doctor. "…Anytime now. You say arrangements have been made for the child?" Sadie knew something terrible was happening to her mother. She knew she'd been very sick for a long time. She hadn't seen her for weeks but it seemed like forever. Her lips quivered and her eyes welled with tears. She wanted her mammy. She wanted her mammy to be well, she wanted her mammy to hold her and tell her everything would be all right. Yet, it was all too much for the six-year-old. She was frightened, frightened of the dark and the wind, frightened for her mammy. The familiar hallway seemed threatening, after the doctor and Mrs. Smith stepped back into the room, and a low cry of terror tore from her throat.
The sounds from within grew louder, sounds of her mother gasping for breath. Harsh, grating sounds that terrified her. Sadie could stand it no more. She crept from her hiding place shivering with cold and fear in the shadows of the passage. She paused outside the door and listened. She reached for the doorknob, longing to open it and run to her mother's side, yet with a sob, she turned towards the front door. She pulled it open and stepped out into the wintry night, pulling the door closed behind her. She ran from the darkness of the house where its shadows of unfamiliar doom and approaching death, threatened to reach out and engulf her. She ran across the wet cobblestones, to the safety of the Smith's...
Mary's wheezing ceased. She lay back on her pillow as life began to drain from her weary body. Her skin was cool and clammy. She gazed with clouded eyes at Alice Smith, knowing with certainty that death was near at hand. Her face was ravished and sunken. Her voice was barely a whisper. "A, Alice..." she gasped, struggling to hold on to what life she had left. "You'll m, make s, sure m, me little one g, gets back t' me mother..."
Alice leaned forward so she could hear the dying woman's words. She knew Mary had been clinging to life for weeks, hoping her mother would come; yet it was too late. Alice had no idea what possessed Mrs. Kelly to close her heart from her dying daughter. She couldn't imagine being so cold and unforgiving, but she knew it was not for her to judge others at a time like this. Right now, this young woman needed people who cared as she passed from this world.
She looked upon the stricken face of Sadie's mother and held her thin, cold fingers in her own. Compassion for this girl, who was so close to death, overwhelmed her. "Yis, luv," she murmured softly, tears filling her eyes. "Everythin's been arranged, dear. God Bless yer, now, Mary, luv."
Mary sighed deeply. Her laboured breathing bubbled painfully in her chest. She fingered her beloved Rosary breads as she drifted in and out of consciousness. Blurred images floated and danced across her tortured mind. Images of her precious little Sadie. Of Raymond, so handsome in his uniform, how they had loved and laughed. Images of her mother tormented her. She wanted to see her mother… ask her forgiveness, but Mary knew it was over. Yet, Alice… her dear friend, Alice, would keep her daughter safe...
The minutes ticked away in the silent room. The claustrophobic smell of death hung in the air. Alice Smith glanced at Doctor Anderson, who had just taken Mary's pulse. He gravely shook his head. She looked back at the dying woman and reached for her hand. "God help yer, Mary luv," she murmured brokenly, tears blinding her eyes. "The good Lord will hold yer in his arms…" Mary struggled to speak. Her voice rattled from deep within her chest. "S, Sadie, me...little Sadie..." she whispered, through dry cracked lips. "I'll always luv yer, m, me little darlin'…" Images of her sad little girl flashed before her eyes. She wanted so much to hold her one last time, kiss her face, touch her cheeks, her hair, but it was impossible now. The pain that gripped her lungs was unmatched to the pain within her failing heart. "I…I'm s, sorry, me little one…" she panted. "Mother of God... I'm so sorry…" Mary knew time was running out for her, she could hardly open her eyes.
Her breathing was harsh and rasping. Her lungs gurgled and with fluid, fighting for air. She was weakening rapidly. Alice leaned forward and gently kissed her forehead. "God luv yer, Mary." she murmured sadly. "Ah, God luv yer…"
Mary turned her eyes to Mrs. Smith and sighed. "Th, thank you…f, for everythin', Alice…" she mumbled, her eyes slowly closing. The minutes ticked on. No one spoke except for the murmur of prayers from Father Murphy and the Sisters of Mercy. The waiting was almost over.
At last Mary's breathing eased, becoming less fierce. The pain that had burned within her lungs for so long began to fade. She felt a lightness wash over her. She turned weary, frightened eyes to Father Murphy, knowing with certainty that death was only moments away.
Her voice was barely audible. "Tis with t, terrible fear an' s, sorrow I leave th, this world, Father…" she whispered. "May th, the good Lord in Heaven, f, fergive me sins…" Mary's eyes opened wide as a surge of panic overwhelmed her. "Jaysus, Mother of God, fergive me...fergive me…"
Father Murphy quietly finished the last rights of absolution then gently held her hand. "Ah, Mary, me child," he answered compassionately. "The Lord has fergiven yer, so he has. Don't be afraid, Mary. Let go now..." he urged gently. "Don't be afraid any more. Tis time for yer t' leave. Tis a better place you'll be goin' to child, so pray with me now, Mary…"
Rain beat upon the windowpane. The wind outside intensified in its fury. The thin curtains moved in the draught through the glass. The gas lamp on the wall flickered in the dimly lit room. Father Murphy lifted Mary's chilled and useless hand to her forehead, in an effort for her to make the Sign of the Cross and in the shadowy stillness, they began to pray.
"Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with Thee..." Mary Kelly was unable to finish her prayer. Moments later she sighed her last breath, her hands went limp as she slipped peacefully from this world. Mrs. Smith wept silent tears of sorrow.