Valerie McLoughlin, fast hurtling towards retirement in 2022, is planning her future again, hoping that writing will feature heavily. Mother of four grown up children, grandmother to seven, Valerie currently works in DCU. She attended St Patrick’s College as a mature student from 2000 to 2003, studying History and Human Development. With apologies to all those children and grandchildren, she sees those student years as being close to the best three years EVER. Valerie attended one of Tanya Farrelly’s online creative writing workshops during one of the lockdowns and she enjoys reading, cooking, walking and swimming – or, what is now known as Wild Swimming; in truth, she is a Covid Swimmer and credits it with keeping her sane.
10.25 CORK TO DUBLIN. 1969
The tall thin nun, one of two in the train carriage, held the baby on her lap, just ever so slightly away from her body. She was clearly in charge of the party of three, four really, counting the baby. Two nuns, one baby and one young girl. They made for a strange looking group but anyone with either imagination or empathy would have known what was going on here.
The 10.25 from Cork’s Kent Station had left ten minutes late but was picking up lost time with its speed as it made its way north to Dublin. There had barely been one word spoken since they boarded the train. On the luggage rack above their heads was one small, tatty suitcase. This belonged to the young girl, Cassie. The nuns were travelling light; they would be making the return journey after they had executed their mission. The baby was also travelling light; she was making a one-way trip and hopefully all she would need was waiting for her at Heuston Station.
Cassie, sitting opposite the tall thin nun, kept her face averted, watching the farmland stream away from her, taking her closer and closer to home. It was snowing lightly; Christmas was only a fortnight away. Closing her eyes, she tried not to listen to her five-month old daughter cooing across at her. Mary-Ann, that was the name she had given her, was a chubby-cheeked, blue eyed, fair haired baby. Beautiful eyes; Cassie gave thanks that she had not inherited her poor wandering eye. But she had got her exact shade of blue, a distinctive blue with a darker blue rim around the iris. She gave in and turned her head towards Mary-Ann and smiled shyly at her; Mary-Ann gave an unexpected gurgle of laughter. The two nuns looked down at the baby, the tall one, Sr Carmel, with a blank look and the little fat one, Sr Ursula, smiled at the baby, and looked over to Cassie. ‘She will be grand Cassie; look how happy a baby she is. She will fit right into this family. I have seen it all before. Don’t worry’ she said to her, her voice warm and reassuring. Sr Carmel, interrupted ‘Sr Ursula, we have all this under control. Cassie, in a couple of hours this will all be behind you. You can continue your life and just forget this ever happened. Believe me this is the best way to approach it’. She tried to change her tone, tried to sound softer but it was not in her nature. Sr Carmel wasn’t a cruel person, merely pragmatic; she had made this train journey hundreds of times. Mostly to Dublin, but often too she continued out to the airport. She knew how this could play out; containment was the only way to ensure their mission went smoothly.
‘Teas, sandwiches, chocolate?’ the conductor opened the door of the carriage and stood with his trolley. ‘Teas Sisters? He nodded his head deferentially. ‘Thank you, no. We have brought our own’ said Sr Carmel. He hesitated a moment, catching Cassie’s eye and raised his eyebrow quizzically. A barely perceptible shake of her head, she looked back out of the window. ‘Good day so, Sisters’ he said, sliding the carriage door closed and moving on with his tea trolley to the next carriage. ‘Here’ said Sr Carmel, thrusting the baby towards Sr Ursula. ‘Hold it for a moment while I get the flask out’. ‘I’ll take her’ said Cassie, holding out her arms; she looked at Sr Ursula. ‘Please?’ The little nun looked up at Sr Carmel. ‘Best not Cassie, you will only confuse her. Especially the day that’s in it’ said Sr Carmel, putting Mary-Ann onto Sr Ursula’s ample lap.
Sr Ursula looked at Cassie, making an apologetic half smile. She turned Mary-Ann to face her, propping her up on her little chubby legs, bouncing her up and down. The baby made those sounds, laughing and gurgling up to the nun’s own chubby face, while Sr Carmel took out the flask from the bag at her feet. She passed a mug towards Cassie – ‘No thank you Sister. I am fine’ Cassie said. She didn’t trust herself to try to eat or drink, her stomach was in such a knot. Sr Carmel unwrapped the greaseproof paper package of sandwiches, the smell of egg and onion filling the carriage.
Cassie’s mouth filled up with saliva, she started to swallow involuntarily. ‘I need to use the bathroom Sisters. May I go?’ ‘Of course girl’ said Sr Carmel sharply ‘you are not a resident now; you can go to the bathroom without permission you know’ she laughed, not unkindly. Standing up Cassie opened the door of the carriage and swiftly made her way down the moving train to the toilet. It was unoccupied, thank God, as she just had time to bolt the door behind her, open the lid and, holding her hair back from her face and throw up the contents of her stomach into the grimy, urine scented, toilet bowl. Her stomach heaving again, Cassie retched into the bowl, but there was nothing left. Taking some toilet paper, she wiped her mouth and blew her nose, flushing away the detritus onto the railway tracks. She washed her hands and rinsed out her mouth as best she could with the soap. Looking at herself in the mirror she was shocked at who she saw. Barely 18 – she had given birth to Mary-Ann the day after her 18th birthday, she looked closer into the mirror. She was not just pale, she was grey. Her hair which had been shoulder length when she arrived in the home, was now at least 5 inches longer; all round her face it was broken and thin. Her eyes were bloodshot, and there were tears streaking her face. How had it all gone so wrong for her? Eighteen months ago, she was still in school, facing into her Leaving Cert, having fun, good friends and a good family around her.
But she did know how it all went wrong for her. One boy, one night, one time. A decent boy, but a boy nonetheless who also had a good family around him. A family that surrounded him and protected him from guilt and responsibility. She had become a cliché, a statistic. It was almost a parody; the tears, recriminations, even the words ‘your father would be turning in his grave’ uttered. It was nearly embarrassingly predictable how they had reacted. There was no ‘never darken our door again’ stuff, but still she had to make herself scarce, in a home well away from the family. Cork was as far from Donegal as you can get, and Cassie had been there for ten months, five of those in her bubble with her beautiful baby. But now her bubble was burst. She had reached the end of the line.
Putting down the lid of the toilet, she sat and thought of all the times the nuns, the local priest in Blackrock, the letters from her mother, and surprisingly her sisters, all pleading with her to give up Mary-Ann. Her mind raced; how could she get them both away? It surely wasn’t too late to fix this. She knew that if her mother, and her sisters, met Mary-Ann, they would not be able to return her to the nuns, and to whatever fate lay in store for her with a strange family. She had to make it happen that they meet the baby at the station. She knew they were coming to collect her to bring her to the bus station, to take the four-hour bus trip to Donegal town. She hadn’t seen her family since February; there had been letters and the odd phone call, but in truth she had been offloaded. Standing up, she washed her hands again. Looking in the mirror, she saw that at least her eyes had lost their bloodshot look and her face looked clean. She was going to be grand; she felt a new resolve within her.
Sliding back the bolt, she was surprised to see Sr Ursula standing outside. Even though Cassie had lived in a convent for ten months, she had never seen a nun go into a toilet. Strange thought to now have, at a time like this. Sr Ursula took her hand, ‘Don’t do anything foolish dear’ she said. ‘I know you are hurting but believe me, you have made the right decision.’ Cassie’s eyes welled up, the pain in her chest swelled. ‘I know I said I would give her up, but I can’t, Sister, I just can’t’ she was crying openly now. The little chubby nun reached up and put her arms around Cassie. ‘I know dear; believe me I know’ she whispered. ‘But it will get better; you will live your life and she will live hers. You know, this family have four adopted children already. Mary-Ann will bring them all such joy’. Cassie was sobbing still, all the pent up grief and pain rolling through her body. ‘But she will miss me, she will wonder where I am!’ she cried. ‘They won’t know how she likes to lie in her nappy after her feed; they won’t know how she loves to be rocked to sleep. They will leave her to go to sleep on her own. She will be lonely!’ she sobbed. ‘I will be lonely; I will die of this!’ ‘Cassie, you won’t die of this. You will live on, you will have more children, you will learn to live without her. Listen to me!’ she suddenly sounded angry ‘This is the right decision for Mary-Ann, whether you like it or not. Your family would never let you bring her home. What would you do? We have been through all of this Cassie. You have to pull yourself together. Mary-Ann will know you’re upset. You don’t want her last memory of you to be this, do you?’
By now Cassie’s sobs had subsided and her breathes were shaky. Turning back to the bathroom, she again washed her hands and this time her face too. ‘You’re right; I am sorry. I will be ok now. You’re right’ she said in a monotone voice. ‘Let’s get back’, they both walked back to the carriage. By now the train was only an hour from its destination; she had an hour left with her daughter. She had better make it a good hour.
Opening the carriage door, the unmistakable smell of a full nappy assailed her. Mary-Ann smiled up at her, reaching out her little arms. Cassie took her from Sr Carmel. ‘Did either of you bring nappies?’ she asked.