Maureen Cullen

btf

Maureen was born in West Dunbartonshire and now lives in Argyll and Bute. She is a retired social worker who specialised in fostering and adoption. In 2015, she gained an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University where she studied poetry and short fiction. She has been shortlisted in various competitions, including The Fish Short Story Prize and The Bristol Short Story Prize. In 2016, she was published by Nine Arches Press, along with three other poets, in Primers 1. She has poetry published in a range of magazines, including Shooter…and The Interpreter’s House. She has stories published in Impspired, Prole, the Hysteria Anthology, the Evesham Anthology, Leicester Writes Anthology, Stories for Homes Volume 2, Willesden Herald New Short Stories 10, Northwords Now, The Bristol Prize Anthology 2018, and online at Ink Tears and Creative Writing Ink. Her current project is a collection of linked short stories based in a fictional town in the West of Scotland.

Baby’s-breath  

Faces stared at me from dingy shop doorways and peeling bus shelters. Faces that seemed to bear a resemblance to mine. A woman, ghostly white, crossed over in front of my car and I slammed on the brakes. She turned and smirked as though she knew me.

             At the end of High Street, the entrance to the convent came into view. I struggled to keep the Citroen in a straight line as I negotiated the driveway. Willing myself to slow down, I recited my mother’s words: too much hurry Grace, less haste. As if to underline her presence, her favourite flower, gypsophila, misted the gardens, cloud after cloud of spray lining the drive. Baby’s-breath she called it, an emblem of purity and strength. At least the holy statues had been removed, but there remained an oppression in the mature planting, the girth of established trees and in the arched stained-glass windows of the renovated convent.The estate had probably changed little over the last forty-five years.

The Man with the Van and his young assistant arrived, parked up behind me and met me at the front door. The older man took off his cap, rolled it between his hands and said, ‘Nae men allowed in here. Ah remember as a boy ma gran coming tae visit one of the sisters and ah had tae wait at the gate. She was only allowed tae speak through a grille. Imagine living like that, eh?’ He shook his head. ‘When a lass went in here, it was like a death in the family.’

The ground floor flat had been adapted from a former dining room, its best feature the floor to ceiling windows and their stained-glass panels. Bright floral garlands caught a ray of sunlight and multi-ribbons of colour fluttered on the eggshell walls. It was a momentary cheer, disappearing as I crossed the room and looked out at the dank stone wall which banded the estate.

Once the removal men had gone, I went to slip my mother’s bashed suitcase under the bed, but I changed my mind and snapped open the lock. On top sat the album bulging with faded newspaper cuttings and glossy programmes. Flicking through, I stopped at one of my younger self, face lifted in my favourite ballet pose, my tutu a white chiffon whisper around my waist. Dance had been an obsession, blinding me to the fact I should’ve spent more time with Mum. But no, even after the limelight had gone, I’d worked around the clock nurturing new talent. I closed the album, recalling the hastily arranged flight, the rush through hospital corridors, Mum’s spidery scratch on my arm, her slurred speech. ‘Sorry, Grace, thought it was best. Dad… Wanted to protect you…’

            My stomach seared. ‘What is it, Mum?’

            Morphine took over.

I locked the case, pushed it under the bed and rose, chasing away the memory of my mother’s wasted figure under the hospital blanket.

Shortly after the funeral I’d made the appointment with the adoption counsellor. Liz seemed distracted, peering at paperwork on her desk. ‘I see you’ve filled out the form. Your adopted mother and father have died and now…’ She looked up.

‘Mum always shied away from talking about it. I knew from early on the subject pained her too much.’

‘You don’t have any information at all?’

 ‘One time I was to bring a photo of myself as a newborn baby to school and I pressed for answers, as seven-year-olds do. Mum wrapped me in her arms. Och, we don’t need one of those, toots, she said.I sort of knew not to ask again.’

‘Yes, young children are sensitive to a parent’s discomfort.’  

‘I was placed at a few months old so there wasn’t much to tell but I always wondered who my birth parents were, well, my mother really. Not that I don’t want to know about my father, just I understand that might be a case of father unknown.’

‘Nowadays we provide all the information we have to adopters, but your adoption was a good while ago.’ Liz drew herself up and sighed. ‘I’ve had a look at the file…’

‘There’d been no time… my career… all that.’

‘Not everyone needs to find out.’ Liz’s pearl nails tapped the desk.

‘When Mum passed away…’

‘That must have been difficult.’

 ‘Yes, but I’m not looking to replace her.’

‘People often feel a sense of loyalty.’ Liz sat back.

‘I just need to know who I am. There’s something not right. Mum had something she wanted to tell me.’

We both stared at the opened file; it was mostly white space but perhaps it was a summary and there’d be more in the back, in the crypt where they stored stories of people’s lives.

There wasn’t any more in the back.

The counsellor gave me photocopies of scant papers, and suggested I contact her if I wanted to talk further. I murmured thanks and fled the building. Since then I’d tried to resurrect the image of my birth mother as a busy career woman, eager to meet her daughter. But that fantasy had disintegrated.

 I stepped to the front facing window. There were few residents, some units were still for sale or rent and the other half of the development was fenced off. Mum would say I was being silly moving in when all I needed was to look around.

            Sitting on the edge of the bed, I traced the patterns inlaid on the silk spread and then, shivering, lay down on my side. The file had been thin because there was no history to tell. There was no mother, no father, no siblings. The nurses at the hospital had chosen my name, Grace.

            This was a huge mistake but still… I needed to connect with something. If not with flesh and blood, then it would have to be this place. In one of the newspaper cuttings, police stated that the infant had been left at dusk, at the gates of the convent and found by a Sister who was praying in her cell nearby. At least, I could find that exact spot.

            I plucked my coat from its peg and slipped outside. Access to the main gate, now closed off, might be gained by taking the shore road and turning back uphill further along. I followed a track downhill and came to a fork in the path where a wooden sign was carved, to the shore. My pulse raced, it wasn’t yet dark, there would be time if I hurried. Stumbling over uneven ground, I persisted on the overgrown path which narrowed as it meandered down to the river. The bustle of the town was overtaken by sounds of foghorns moaning in the distance and the mournful calls of seabirds. Soon I was at the river’s edge, the splash of white crested waves on rock and pebble lulling the coming night. The convent was visible above me, a dark cord clinging to the cliff edge.

 A wooden post marked Convent pointed to a craggy, disused path, rich with grit and small stones, which led back uphill. I halted where the foliage spilled over the path and used my thigh to push back brambles and high nettles, skimming through before they snapped back. Tears stung when I stubbed my toe and nearly tripped on fibrous root clumps on the path. I almost turned back; what on earth could I hope to gain by this idiocy? I was a foundling; I’d never find out who I really was. But giving up wasn’t in my DNA, no matter where that came from.

I plunged on until I reached the convent’s periphery wall, and ran my fingers across its rough finish, the surface spongy with moss. Following it for some metres east, I came to the original entrance, its tall iron gates, once painted white, now peeled and padlocked. I gripped the rough metal, rust powdering my fingers, a coppery tang splicing the earthy taste of foliage.

            This was the place where I’d been left, swaddled in a picnic basket, on the ground, at the gate. But which side? I covered every inch, stepping here, stepping there, a desperate dance. The scene overwhelmed me: a tiny infant left alone on a June evening. I kicked overgrown plants at one side of the gate. An iridescent white butterfly fluttered into my face, the thump at my ribs quickening. What if no one had come, no one had heard the baby’s cries? My cries.

That night, my dreams were filled with crashing waves and swishing trees. When I rose, I discovered it had been stormy, bins upended on the drive. Broken branches hung loose like disjointed arms. It was grey outside, and from over the fence the rumble of a cement mixer and the clang of spades jolted my nerves.

            Once showered, I sat cross-legged on the bed and again thumbed my way through the meagre paperwork. The social worker had said the convent closed years ago, due to a lack of novices. Here was the nurse, pictured in black and white, with a beaming smile, holding the baby in her arms, two fingers pressed on its bib, freeing the tiny face for the camera. The nurse wasn’t named. But the hospital was.

After several phone calls, I tracked down Beth Bisland, late of Ward 4, now retired, but apparently still well-known to staff at the hospital through her voluntary work. We met in the small café. I recognised a much older version of the woman in the photo, white haired and lined, but with the same cheerful expression.

When I approached and introduced myself, Beth rose halfway from the chair and gripped my arm. ‘Oh, my pet, I aye wondered whit happened tae you.’ The woman pulled a hanky from her sleeve and began to weep, noisily.

            I inched away. There were two other customers in the café, and they were staring. I wanted to run off but instead sat down opposite and whispered, ‘It’s alright, I was lucky in my adoptive parents.’

            ‘But you want tae find out aboot your real mother?’ Beth blew her nose and stuck the hanky up her sleeve.

            ‘Birth mother.’ My real mother was dead.

            ‘The police didnae find her. How will you? After aw these years.’

            ‘I don’t expect to find her, really. I just hoped you might have remembered something.’

            ‘You were a bonny wee thing.’ Now a big smile lit up the woman’s face. I cringed, peeked over to the other customers, relieved they had turned away.

            ‘Anything at all that comes back to you… I can’t ask the nuns, you see. They’re long gone.’

            ‘No aw of them.’

            ‘What do you mean?’

            ‘They didnae leave. They were transferred tae the Little Sisters convent at the other side of town. Though it was mostly auld nuns. There might be one sister still living there. She’ll be well intae her nineties. Let me make a call. I’ve a pal who cleans the place.’

Beth got up, moved to the window, scanned her phone and after a few moments, returned and announced, her face flushed. ‘She’s still alive. The one who found you. Sister Philomena, ninety-six, with aw her wits aboot her, a bit of a character I’m told. The boss up there is Sister Ann, you’ll have tae go through her, but it shouldnae be a problem.’

                                                                        *

Sister Philomena sat in a winged armchair, hands folded on her lap, as fragile as a baby bird. She wore a mid-calf green flared skirt, white blouse, and an olive cardigan with pearl buttons. The shirt collar was far too big, and flared around her thin neck. Her snow-white hair was cut short, tapered around a tiny face. A gold crucifix hanging from a chain was the only sign of her calling. She faced the door, fixing me with dark, deep set eyes. A light pressure at my back broke the moment and sent me forward into the room.

Sister Ann said, ‘This is Grace, Sister. I’ll leave you to it. Ring the bell should you need anything,’

Philomena fluttered a welcome with one hand, guiding me to sit down on the two-seater across from her chair. Her eyes burned into my face with an intensity that made me sit back in my seat. The nun was muttering to herself. ‘Aye, I see now.’

 ‘I beg your pardon?’

‘It’s so guid tae see you. We’ll have some tea.’

The nun’s skin was milky pale, almost transparent, which made the black eyes even more stunning in their depth. Philomena tilted her head in enquiry.

I said, ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to stare.’

Philomena poured the tea. The saucer and cup tinkled in her bony fingers as she passed them over. ‘I’ve waited a long time for this.’ The nun’s eyes filled, and a tear slid down her cheek. She made no attempt to wipe it and another escaped, swelling on a lower lash. My eyes welled up in response. This was too much; all these tears were too disturbing. I turned away and concentrated on the sunlit window framing the garden where a commotion of gypsophila crowded the beds.

Philomena set down her cup and cleared her throat. ‘Tell me, my dear, firstly, your adoption? It worked out?’

I met her eye. ‘Yes, I had good parents, unfortunately my father died when I was twenty-five. My mum…she died some weeks ago.’

‘And the time came for you tae find out about the circumstances of your birth. What is it that you do in life?’

This I could discuss. ‘I was a dancer, ballet, based in London. Retired.’

‘Och, are you no a beauty, lass?’

‘Thank you.’

Philomena closed her eyes and, as if reciting prayer, began. ‘I was in cloisters, saying the rosary, asking for salvation when I heard a cry. At first, I thought it was a fox, or some such ither animal, and went on with the Fifth Decade. But the sound intensified, seemed tae pierce my very skin. I stood up, alarmed. It led me tae the garden where I recognised it as a bairn’s cry. It was too late for a passing mother out on a walk, dusk was falling, the woods were dark across the way. I hurried tae the gate.’ The nun turned to me. ‘You were in a basket at the ither side, wrapped in an ivory lace shawl. Screaming.’ She smiled. ‘As though you had lungs tae burst.’

This infant had been real, not a photograph in an old newspaper cutting. Images raced through my head. The old one of my beautiful birth mother, sad and rejected, having to place her much loved child for adoption, was smashed to pieces and replaced by a squalling infant, blood sprayed grass, a swollen placenta, the mess of birth.

I realised I’d been gazing out of the window again and turned to see that Philomena had drifted off, her head tilted to one side. I waited a few moments before coughing loudly. The nun raised her head and smiled, though no cheer reached her eyes. Perhaps she’d remembered something else.

‘I’m sorry, I faded on you. I needed tae consult Him up there.’ A mischievous gleam brightened the nun’s eyes.

I breathed out in relief.

            ‘I asked Him tae pass the job on tae somebody else, but He gave me a fair ticking off.’

             ‘Please, Sister, I can handle whatever you have to say.’

            Philomena nodded, took a sip of her tea. ‘Grace. The name suits you. Tell me. What do you hope tae find?’

‘When I started, I didn’t know for sure, only that it was something bad that my mum couldn’t tell me. Since finding out I was a foundling, I need more. Peace? Answers? Why I have long fingers, these bones?’

            ‘Ah, peace is no easy tae supply, even for Him. As for answers, there’s only the truth.’ She sat back in her chair and focused on my face.

I raised my chin, determined to dispel disquiet.

‘When I bent tae pick you up, I caught a movement, a girl ower in the wooded area. She’d already turned and was heading in the direction of the river.’

‘You saw her. You know what she looks like?’

Philomena shook her head. ‘No, my dear, I didnae see her face. A young girl, slim from behind. I called after her, but she was already gone. You wailed and distracted me. I gathered you up and rushed back inside. I told Mother Superior. She said she told the policeman. I didnae get tae speak directly tae him. Nowadays, I would insist. But I was somewhat…err…naïve then. The politics of convents.’ Philomena sighed and turned towards the window.

‘She didn’t leave me alone.’

The nun leaned forward in her chair, shocked. ‘Oh no, my dear. She wouldnae ever do that.’

What had Sister said? Wouldn’t?

Philomena was still talking. ‘I prayed for you both for many years. I felt deeply that she was very young. There must have been some tragedy that made her leave her baby.’

Bile rose in my throat. ‘You know her, don’t you?’

‘Yes, my dear, I find that I’ve known her for many a year. But I didnae realise that until today when I laid eyes on you.’

The room dipped.

‘Are you alright, Grace? Maybe we’ll slow down, have something tae eat.’

‘No, I need to know.’

Philomena settled back in her chair. ‘Alright. It was five or six years later. I prayed for you daily. We were busier then, with a trickle of novices coming through. No aw of them stayed. It’s a hard life at times.’ She closed her eyes.

‘Sister…’

She started up. ‘Oh aye. There was one girl, just nineteen. We were guid friends, I her mentor, if you like. She did wonderful lacework, sewed all the linen cloths for the convent’s chapel. By then I was in my mid-fifties. She didnae speak of her life outside, but it was clear tae me she was in mourning. Often, I found her at that gate, gazing out. Now, of course, I realise what that was about. She did leave, after maybe three years.’

‘Her name?’

‘She took the name Angelique. Her birth name was Sarah.’

Sarah. My birth mother’s name was Sarah. Was that what the nun was saying? ‘Is it her, is she alive, do you know where she is?’

‘She never spoke tae me of you, and I never imagined she was that girl.’

‘How can you be certain now?’

‘You’ll see.’ Philomena pushed herself from the chair, crossed the room with the stiffness of age, opened a drawer in the dresser and returned grasping a large buff envelope, creased with use. Taking a deep breath, she eased down and spilled out the contents. Photographs, letters and postcards fanned out on the table. She sifted through and extracted one photograph with great care and passed it over, her eyes on my face.

The photograph was a close-up of… me. When I was about twenty-five. The same dark hair, blue eyes, high cheekbones. Something too about the mouth, the same smile and jawline.

‘You see? Together with her appearance, the timing, the manner of her grief, her fixation with the gate, her friendship with me, and ower the years there’ve been hints.’

I glanced away from the photo. ‘What hints?’

‘Once she slipped her guard, told me she’d abandoned those who needed her, that she would never be forgiven… I promised her God was guid. Ither things…it comes together. But I never thought this… until I saw you.’

‘Where is she? Have you spoken to her?’

‘She writes tae me now and then. Her true calling was family life, she got married.’ Philomena hesitated. ‘She had four more bairns. Works in her own wee business, a wonderful seamstress.’

It was almost too much to take in. I had brothers, sisters. My birth mother must have been desperate to abandon her first child. She would’ve been about thirteen or fourteen years old when she gave birth.

I clasped the photograph to my chest. ‘I don’t know what to do.’

‘You need do nothing.’

 ‘Will you tell her of me?’

‘This time, the decision can only be yours.’

Looking deep into Philomena’s eyes, I saw compassion and love. Understood everything all at once, the strength of Mum’s protection. Her fear of the truth. But I also knew what Mum would say now.

‘Go on, find her, but mind, Grace, too much hurry, less haste.’

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.