Friday 21 December 2018

Fire Making

We have different approaches to fire making.
You clean out the grate thoroughly, sending soot and dust skyrocketing.
Then you bury the firelighters deep in a maze of sticks and logs and coal and briquettes. 
To locate and ignite them is a veritable Turing effort.

I try random at first and launch several Cupid’s arrows in the general direction,
in the hope of an off-chance encounter with flammable material.
Even long tapers, improvised from yesterday’s Newspaper, often meet 
the same fate, and fizzle out before they strike home.

I consider the physics of fire: the supply of oxygen; ambient temperatures;
the force of gravity; and convection-
essential components of the manifestation of uncontrolled combustion.
I curse you several times for making the task so darn tricky.

Finally, I launch another match or taper, hoping that it will catch the tail of the previous missile, not yet fully extinguished, and somehow make the quantum leap to 
full blaze. Sometimes that works. But sometimes I have to dismantle your pyre.
And start all over again.

Copyright with Cathy Leonard 2018

Tuesday 4 December 2018

The Magdalene

The Magdalene

It was one of those mornings when the sun seems to shatter your sight. Like shutters opening and closing. Bats wings fluttering. Broken panes splintering. Seaward all was quiet in the New York Docklands. Mary closed her eyes and let her mind wander back to Roundstone, Connemara and the cold Atlantic waves gathering momentum in the bay.

The white horses dashed against the shore, swept up the beach and then combed the shingle as they receded back into the sea. Overhead, gulls’ shrill cries pierced the silence. In her nostrils she could smell the tang of a dozen varieties of sea weed: Bladderwrack, Carrageen, Sea Lettuce, Dabberlocks. If she opened her eyes she would see gannets drop and plunge 20 feet in pursuit of their prey. Behind her the clouds hugged the Twelve Pins. Nineteen years ago she stood thus, a young woman on the edge of  a wave that would carry her to a secluded convent ruled over by pitiless Mercy Nuns, a laundry that would sap the last drop of her hope, and an emigrant ship that would see her embark upon a new life.

Mary fingered the letter that she held clutched in her hand. His writing was neat, a looped scroll that tilted slightly forward. She had learned to read and write in one of her households; they said she would need it to take household orders to the shops. Her skills were rudimentary but she understood every word he had written.

In an hour’s time the meeting would be over. Why had he asked to meet her here?
Was it because this is where she had first disembarked all those years ago? A gauche ignorant Irish girl reeling down the gangway, herded into a holding pen. Ellis Island, steerage class, and Mary jostled along in a motley crowd to the front of the queue. Questions, searches, medical checks, delousing. Her skin still crawled at the memory of it. When she finally stumbled onto the streets Mary had wept. She was finally here. Maybe she could find her baby.

In the Dockland a horn blew for the change of shifts. The sound of feet scurrying past her brought Mary back to the present. Men in grey overalls began to converge on the dockland gates where they poured in and out through security checks.

Mary blinked back the tears that threatened and recalled the scene that had haunted her all these years, a squalling infant in a hand knit woollen blanket in the arms of  stranger disappearing into the back of an Austen Cambridge. Nothing had prepared her for the loss of Joey.

She was yanking the handle of a wringer at the time, standing right in the middle of the laundry floor. The steam made fog so thick she could hardly make out the panic stricken face of Agnes mouthing something to her. The hiss of the water in the drains, the clank of the wringers as they squeezed the moisture out of the sheets, the noise was deafening. Agnes had to clutch Mary’s tunic and drag her out of the aisle. Sister Bernadette had arched her eyebrow and extended a warning cane.

“It’s urgent!” shrieked Agnes.
“Joey?” Mary’s heart began to pound. Three babies had fallen ill the week before. Three little souls gone to their maker, victims of diphtheria. Mary was making a dash for her room when Agnes pulled her back.
“Not that way! They’re taking him through the back gate!”
“They? Who?”
“The Americans. They’re taking your baby!”

Her legs gave way but she managed to stumble towards the corridor that she knew would lead her to the outside yard, the drive way and the back gate.
She had, of course, heard about this practice of adoption, but they needed her permission for that. It couldn’t be true.

Then she heard the new born’s piercing cry, the click of high heels over the pebbles, a car revving up, and the smell of exhaust fumes from the engine. Between Mary and her baby a gate rose over six feet high. She fumbled for the latch. It was padlocked.
“Stop!” she roared.
The woman spun around. The blanket began to unravel. Mary’s arms extended as far as they could through the open grill.
“Give him here! He’s mine!” she demanded.
Someone jumped out of the car and steered the faltering woman towards the back seat.
“It’s alright, Kay. It’s probably some lunatic. Careful there! That’s it.”
The door slammed. The edge of the blanket still caught in it. She watched the blanket fringe flap and dangle as the car sped off into the night. When she put her knuckles to her mouth she could taste blood. She must have struck the iron gates several times with force and the pain was now beginning to register. That’s when her legs gave way.

They said she had signed the papers herself. She recalled putting an X to some agreement or other when she was in the height of her labour. That must have been it, the moment they chose to take advantage of her, to trade her baby for US dollars. He would have a good Catholic home, they said. He would have all the advantages of education that she had lacked. He would be well off and well fed. He would be safe. Mary had let it go, but three years later she took the steamer to America. She wanted him back.

In an hour’s time she would see him again. Would he look like her? Did a baby’s eyes change colour? He had blue eyes when he was born, slate grey blue like hers and tufts of dark hair. Dark like hers before it had begun to turn grey. He would be tall like all the Bradys. The envelope in her hand contained no photograph so how would she know him? Mary looked about. Still twenty minutes to wait. It was not Central Park; it was not as though the place was teeming with people. She would know him or he would recognise her, a forty year old domestic servant in her Sunday best trying to look like gentry. Her shoes were hand-me-downs, her Mac was frayed at the edges. She had tied a neat scarf around her neck, but poverty clung to her like a second skin. He would recognise his immigrant mother.

A few workers were hurrying towards their shift, already fifteen minutes late. They would have their wages docked at the end of the week. Joey would never know such miserable conditions. He could read and write. He might become school master or a doctor. He might, if he stayed with them. And he would, of course, stay. What was she thinking? Where was the point of this meeting at all? She had been met with official stonewalling when she had begun to make inquiries all those years ago. No records. Burnt records. Lost records. She had given up. And now suddenly the letter out of the blue arrived. The boy was making inquiries. He was eighteen, of legal age, and he wanted to know who his parents were.

Mary’s heart began to pound. He would be ashamed of her. Look at her! She looked ten years older than she should. A life spent skivvying as a domestic had made an old hag out of her. He would regret that he ever asked. And what could she tell him about his father? Paddy Lunny, a farmer’s son, who was packed off to England before his mother got wind of his part in Mary’s shame.

The clock in the docks struck the hour. She had to go. She had to go now. Mary leapt up from the bench. There was still time.  A blonde headed lad was shuffling late to work just a few yards away, but apart from him the place was deserted. Mary hurried off in the direction she had come; she had to spare him the indignity of knowing.
The dock lad had just passed her and Mary breathed a sigh of relief.

“Mam?” The voice came from behind her. “Is that you? Mary Brady?”
The blonde lad drew along side her. He was the spit of Paddy Lunny, small, blonde, but with the Brady slate blue eyes. 
"Mary Brady?"
"No.No." she muttered as she walked away.

 Copyright with Cathy Leonard 2018