AN UNBREAKABLE BOND
One Door of Life Closes
The draughty, stone-walled corridor echoed Megan and Hattie’s footsteps as they walked to the Reverend Mother’s office. Within feet of it, Megan paused and motioned Hattie towards the internal window. Using this as a mirror, they checked their appearance, making sure their grey serge frocks were crease-free and their stiff white collars immaculate.
With shaking hands Megan tried to tuck the stray, unruly locks of her auburn hair under her mobcap. As soon as she tamed one curl, another escaped. Hattie giggled at her attempts. Megan made a face at her, ‘It’s all right for you.’ Hattie’s smooth dark hair always looked neat, for next to no effort. Giving up the battle, Megan knocked on the door.
Reverend Mother’s tone cracked Megan’s already frayed nerves. Hattie squeezed her hand.
The small comfort of the gesture dissolved, the moment she trod the deep carpet and smelt the wax polish. Both were in stark contrast to the cold flagstone floors and the stench of carbolic soap and boiled cabbage in the quarters they occupied with all the other born-of-sin and orphaned children.
As they waited to be acknowledged, Megan’s eyes fixed on the butterfly wings of stiff white linen cascading from each side of the Reverend Mother’s bent head. The sudden lifting of the head made her jump. She tugged Hattie’s frock, to bring her attention back from looking around the room.
‘Well, Megan Tattler and Hattie Frampton, you are now thirteen years of age and you are to leave us. And I don’t have to ask to know how pleased you both are, do I?’
Neither of them answered, but Megan thought that if she did, it wouldn’t be to say she was pleased. Not altogether pleased, as both she and Hattie had a lot of sadness in them at the thought of being separated.
‘Hattie, you go later today, I understand – and, Megan, you are to leave tomorrow.’ The Reverend Mother’s eyes, shrouded by a brow that was squashed into a bulge by her veil, darted between them. Her smile pinched her face as she continued, ‘Now, Hattie, I see you have a very fitting placement: as a scullery maid in the household of Lord Marley’s country residence. Very good! Are you prepared?’
‘Yes, Reverend Mother, but . . . ’
‘No “buts”, Hattie. Lord Marley is one of our benefactors and has given many of our girls a good start in life by providing them with jobs. It’s up to you to make something of yourself.’
‘Yes, Reverend Mother.’
‘Good! So, Megan, it seems to me you think you can take up a placement far above your station. It is unheard of – someone of such low status becoming an apprenticed seamstress!’
The insult, and the look that went with it, froze Megan’s hopes.
‘However, Sister Bernadette has been very persistent on your behalf. And, although aware of the sinful circumstances of your birth, Madame Marie is still inclined to give you a chance. I have therefore had to give the proposal due consideration, and I am persuaded to approve it, after seeing what Madame has written in her letter to me. She states that she is taking you on merit, because you show exceptional talent in the drawings and the sample of stitches shown to her by Sister Bernadette. But she makes it clear that you will be expected to know your place, and to keep it at all times. You are not to try to engage with any of the young ladies who are training there and you will have a room in the attic away from the others. Do you understand?’
‘Yes, Reverend Mother.’
‘I hope you do.’
Megan struggled to hold down the joy surging through her. She stood still, head held high as was befitting and polite. She knew that Reverend Mother, aggrieved at having allowed her to take up the apprenticeship, would take it away from her if she gave her any excuse to do so.
The wings of the Reverend Mother’s veil crackled as she inclined her head. ‘You are dismissed. But remember, what you make of yourselves is up to you. If you work hard and stay true to the teaching you have received here, you will prosper. If you don’t . . . ’ the pinched smile reached her eyes, ‘then the gutter is where you will find yourselves, as many have before you.’
They turned to leave. The woman whose care they had been under since birth did not even say goodbye. Megan didn’t want her to, and knew the same feeling would be in Hattie. She turned as she reached the door, but only the top of the stiff veil remained visible. A feeling settled in Megan that she and Hattie had never existed, in the Reverend Mother’s eyes. She closed the door, glad to be free of the tense atmosphere. Now she could give release to her feelings. But before she had time to, Hattie’s words dulled her joy. ‘Will we ever see each other again, Meg?’
‘Aye, we will. We’ll make sure of it. We’ll write regular. As soon as we get our first wage we can get paper and stamps . . . ’
‘I’m not for working in service, Meg. I’ll be off from there just as soon as I can.’
‘Eeh, Hattie, why?’
‘Cos I’m scared of ending up like Daisy.’
‘Daisy? I didn’t know as she’d been in touch. Don’t she like her placement?’
‘I saw her on the day I had to go into Leeds to have me tooth pulled. Sister Bernadette made me wait outside a shop. I wandered up the street and bumped into Daisy, and she told me she’d left her placement.’
‘You didn’t say . . . ’
‘I know. I couldn’t think how, cos of what I found out, and you had worries enough over what would be happening to you. Anyroad, Daisy’s working the streets. She hadn’t eaten for two days, so I gave her the cab fare, as Sister’d pinned to me coat in case we got separated. I told Sister it must have come unfastened.’
‘Oh, Hattie, is that the gutter as the Reverend Mother spoke of? This working the streets?’
‘Aye, I reckon it is, by the looks of Daisy. But she said things’ll get better for her. She’s being accepted on the patch, and has a couple of customers of her own.’
‘But what is it she has to do? Is it cleaning or sommat?’
‘Oh, Meg! You daft ha’p’orth!’ As it always did, Hattie’s giggling had Megan doubling over with her, but she couldn’t help feeling Hattie was party to something she didn’t know about.
‘They sell themselves. Thou knows. To men. They let men do things to them. Things as men do to make you have babbies. Only they don’t keep having babbies, cos they have ways to stop that happening.’
‘How do you know of such things, Hattie?’
‘Daisy told me everything as a sort of warning, cos she knew as I’d likely end up in service. She wanted me to watch out for meself. She told me her master forced her to do it with him, so she had to run away. She made her way to Leeds and looked for a job, but no one would take her on without a reference. She met this girl who tried to help her, but in the end all the girl could do was take her to the house where she lived. Daisy said she had no choice after that. There’s this bloke who owns the house and he made her work the streets or she’d be for it.’
‘I know. It’s why I’m scared, Meg. The girl said it happens a lot. She said as some top-drawer folk seem to think they have a right to do it, and him as did it to Daisy is known for it.’
‘Eeh, no. What will you do?’
‘Don’t worry, I’ll sort sommat. I’ll work hard until Christmas and give them no reason not to give me a reference, and then I’ll make up a story about having to leave. I don’t know what yet.’
‘But you might settle. It might be as your master is a good ’un. But if he isn’t, you’ll come to me, won’t you? I’ll help you, Hattie. I’ll have me first wage an’ all by then and I’ll give it to you.’
‘Ta, Megan. Eeh, I’m going to miss you.’
A silence fell. Hattie’s hand in hers felt warm and clammy and the fear Hattie felt had entered Megan, but she had no knowledge of what to do. A thought came to her, something that had bothered her for a while. ‘Thou knows, Hattie? I don’t even know how . . . well, how babbies happen. I’ve been on with thinking about it since we started our bleeding and Sister Bernadette sent us to Mrs Hartley.’
‘Aye, I know. I were the same. It were with Mrs Hartley saying we had to watch ourselves and not let boys have their way with us, or we’d end up pregnant. It set me thinking on it. But I know now. I could tell you, if you like?’
Megan said nothing, wanting to know, but not wanting to say so.
‘Well, Daisy told me, the man . . . ’
A tickly feeling in her private part – as Sister Bernadette called that part of them she never allowed them to expose – shocked and embarrassed Megan as she listened to Hattie. And all she could think to say was, ‘Does it hurt?’
‘Daisy said it did the first time, but it isn’t bad after that.’
‘I suppose it can’t be, cos women keep having babbies, don’t they? Anyroad, happen as poor Daisy were unlucky in the placement they sent her to. Where was it?’
‘I don’t know. I were that shocked over what she told me, I forgot to ask her. Still, I shouldn’t be going on. Your placement doesn’t sound that good, either – not with that Madame woman thinking of you as she does.’
‘Don’t worry, I’ll be reet. It’ll be worth it. Just think: I’ll be learning to make frocks and gowns! And maybe sommat’ll come of me drawings. Wouldn’t that be wonderful, eh? To see me drawings being made up, out of satins and suchlike . . . ’
‘Ah, Megan and Hattie, here you are!’
Megan held her breath. Being caught in idle chit-chat was one of the deadliest sins. She hadn’t heard the chinking of keys or the dull jangle of huge wooden rosary beads – the sounds that warned of an approaching nun. Peering into the dim corridor, she saw the outline of a plump figure, hazed by a flowing cream habit, coming towards them.
‘Eeh, Sister Bernadette, it’s you! You gave us a fright.’
‘I expect I did, Hattie.’ The twinkle in Sister Bernadette’s eyes belied the strict retort. ‘I have been looking for you both, this good while. Tell me, my wee ones, is it your placements Reverend Mother has been confirming with you? And is it that you are happy, now you know for sure where it is you are going?’
Megan and Hattie nodded, but the feeling that had come over Megan on hearing of Daisy’s plight and of Hattie’s fears deepened. Sister Bernadette was the only person they could share their worries with, but she couldn’t talk to her about this. Not with her being a nun, she couldn’t.
‘And you, Megan? Is it pleased you are at knowing at last that you can go to Madame Marie’s?’
‘Oh, yes, Sister. I can’t believe it! Ta ever so much.’
‘’Tis the good Lord you have to be thanking for giving you such a talent, Megan. Not that He missed out on giving you something, when He was at the making of you, Hattie dear. You have many virtues: your kind ways and a willingness to help others, amongst many others. You will do well, too. I’m sure of it.’
Tears rolled down Hattie’s cheeks as she nodded her head, and Megan felt her own eyes fill up at the sight.
Sister Bernadette patted Hattie on the shoulder as she continued, ‘The house you are going to, Hattie, is beautiful, so it is. Lord Marley’s country residence is on the outskirts of Leeds on the road to Sheffield. And, Megan, Madame Marie’s is in the centre of Leeds itself and her salons are wonderful.’
Even the new experience of riding the motor-bus to and from the station didn’t lift Megan’s spirits. The suffocating nearness of the strangers travelling with them, the rumbling and vibrating of the engine and the discomfort of the jolting over cobbled roads intruded on her feelings.
Sister Bernadette held her hand throughout the return journey, but didn’t speak. Megan didn’t want her to. Never had she felt so miserable. She’d known the parting with Hattie wasn’t going to be easy, but she hadn’t thought to feel this utter desolation that made her heart sore.
The pebbles crunched under her feet as they walked across the courtyard of the convent, and a funny feeling took her when the entrance with its huge wooden doors came into view. It was like a fear mixed with excitement churning her belly, as she thought of how tomorrow she’d walk through them for the last time and leave everything she knew. As if sensing something in her, Sister Bernadette squeezed her hand, ‘Megan, dear, ’tis as this day had to come, and I have a lot of pain in me because of it, but I have learned over the years to accept life as it is. Not all that it gives you is fair, and not all that is fair is good. You will come to know this and, when you do, I hope you understand. Now, wee one, I have things to tell you of, so I have, and ’tis as I have something to give you that belonged to your dear mammy.’
The words, spoken softly and in Sister Bernadette’s lovely Irish lilt, jolted an instant shock through Megan’s body. Her mam had never been spoken of. Questions had always been silenced. All she knew of her birth was that it had taken place in St Michael’s, a convent for sinful and unmarried pregnant girls.
Once they were inside the convent doors, Sister Bernadette took Megan to her room. ‘Sit yourself down, wee one, whilst I am getting for you what I know will be very special to you.’
No thick carpet hushed Sister Bernadette’s footsteps or dulled the sound of her keys bouncing on her hip as she crossed the room to her desk. Megan sat on the cane chair next to the brass bed; these two items and the desk were all the sparsely furnished room held. Square and with only one small window, it had a flagstone floor that resembled the ones in the children’s quarters, except that these flagstones shone as if painted with lacquer.
The tension, set up in her by knowing she was to hear about her mam, had her fidgeting, making her body hot and sticky with sweat. She watched Sister Bernadette sort through her keys and insert one into a drawer, before putting her hand inside. A panel to the side of the desk shot open, making Megan jump. Sister Bernadette pulled something from the opening and said, ‘Megan, what I have here is a locket. Inside is a picture of your granny and granddaddy.’ She paused and made the sign of the cross. ‘To be sure, ’tis sorry I am to have to tell you, wee one, but,’ she crossed herself again and looked heavenwards, ‘’tis as your poor mammy died just after giving you life. I helped at the birth of you, so I did.’
The pain Megan had held in her chest since saying goodbye to Hattie swelled into her throat and threatened to strangle the life from her. ‘She – she can’t be dead. I have to find her. She . . . ’
She had been about to say that her mam had been the daughter of rich parents who’d turned her out of the family home and wouldn’t allow her back, unless she gave her babby away. That had been the make-believe she’d lived, along with Hattie, who’d always imagined that her mam had been a princess shipped away in disgrace, leaving her ‘sin’ behind.
‘Now, now, my wee one . . . ’
The urge to shout I’m not your wee one! I’m nobody’s wee one fought with the part of Megan that could never hurt Sister Bernadette. But though she didn’t utter the words, she knew them to be the truth. The child she’d been had gone. How could it not, with all she had learned today?
The cold feel of the locket mocked her. Clamping her fingers closed, she paid no heed as the clasp dug into her flesh – better that than look on this trinket, which linked her to her past and yet had wiped out her hopes for the future.
‘Look at it later, if that is what you have a mind to do, my wee Megan. But first I will tell you all I know.’
Lying still, her body stiff with anxiety and her mind in a turmoil of confusion, Megan found that the night hours seemed endless. Loneliness crowded her as she looked over at the bed next to hers. It no longer held the shape of Hattie, curled up in sleep. Always, when troubled, they would creep into each other’s bed and snuggle up together, even though the fear of being caught had pounded at their hearts. But now Hattie had gone.
Sliding her fingers under her pillow, Megan found the locket, and the feeling came to her that she wanted to look at it. She sat up. Holding her breath, she waited, but no one questioned her. If any of the others were awake, they would whisper something. No sound came.
Cold shivered her body as she tiptoed towards the door leading to the corridor. Once there, she opened her cramped fingers. As the light from the gas mantle shining through the window of the door lit up the locket, a trickle of anticipation caught the breath in her lungs. Opening the locket would give her sight of members of her family. Even the word seemed strange to her – ‘family’. A tingle gripped the inside of her: Eeh, I never thought to know of any family, and now I have pictures of me grandparents in a locket worn by me mam. And she wondered: did she look like them? Had her mam looked like them?
Sister Bernadette had said that her grandparents had died before she came into being. In a way she was glad of that, as it meant they hadn’t abandoned her mam when she’d most needed them.
Turning the locket over, she read the words To Catch a Dream inscribed into the tarnished, dented silver. Had her granddad had that engraved for her granny? So many questions . . .
A tiny click and the locket opened. Two people looked up at her, but they didn’t look like grandparents. The picture had been taken when they were young. Her granny’s huge, smiley eyes held love, and her granddad, though not smiling, had a twinkle about his expression. Both were beautiful. Megan’s heart filled with tears, but then a warm feeling filled the space where they had been, taking the fear and coldness out of her as she saw that she had some likeness to both of them. Granny had unruly, wavy hair just like her own, and the freckles on her nose were identical. Granddad had the same high-cut cheekbones as she had, and his eyes, with their slight slant upwards, giving them a near-Oriental look, mirrored her own.
The brown shades of the images didn’t hide the fact that her granddad’s complexion was darker than her granny’s. People often said as she had an olive skin, so she was like him in that as well.
Sister Bernadette had said she couldn’t remember their names. She hadn’t written them down, and she’d hesitated over her mam’s name, as if she’d forgotten that too. ‘I think her name was Br – Brenda. Brenda, that’s right. Brenda Tattler,’ she’d said. Then she’d told Megan that her mam hadn’t been wicked, and that the conceiving of her had been the result of an attack by someone she’d trusted. She’d gone on to say, ‘Everything isn’t for being straightforward in life, Megan. ’Tis better you are not after dwelling on things how you would like them to be, but get on with how they are. Just be thankful your mammy left you something to hold onto.’
Getting back to her bed and laying her head on her pillow, Megan mulled over the words in her mind. Swallowing hard to stem the tears that threatened, she told herself she’d do as Sister had said: she’d not dwell on the sadness of parting from Hattie, or of finding out her mam was dead; and she wouldn’t think on her fear of being alone in an attic and not being good enough to talk to the others at her placement. Instead, she’d think of her family and talk to them. She’d heard you could do that with them as had passed on. The locket had given her folk of her own – folk who would have loved her – and now she knew of them, they’d watch over her and help her. Lifting her head, she pulled her pillow down and wrapped her arms around it. A cold, wet trickle ran down her nose. She held the pillow tighter and snuggled into it.