This story is by Elizabeth McKenna and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
The spring sunshine danced on the walls; bringing the flowers alive. They caught Margaret’s eyes and she remarked that ‘dancing daffodils’ always gave her the shivers. Her colleague laughed, as they both dressed the beds, moving fast among the patients at the large general hospital in the heart of Glasgow, Scotland. The smell of antiseptic caught in their nostrils and the sounds of breathing apparatus moving up and down, was a constant reminder of the lack of facilities for sick people needing constant care.
“You’re beginning to settle and getting used to all the people and the difficulties, working under the stress and overcrowding a busy hospital brings,” said Agnes.
“I am” replied Margaret, “thanks to you and you’re jolly personality, always laughing and joking; keeping everybody in good spirits.”
Agnes worked there since she was a teenager. Now fifty six having seen many sights; some heart-breaking, leaving her with sleepless nights, knew, to be any other way was pointless. “You have to keep your head up and have thick skin to work here” She said.
“Fancy a coffee after work?” asked Margaret.
“Yes, why not?” replied Agnes, tucking the last sheet corner into the bed and shaking the pillows.
Stepping off the bus in front of a large, red bricked, Victorian building under renovation, the smell of rising dust and decaying brickwork making them cough. Settling at the window, sipping coffee in silence, and watching the workers carefully remove the slates from the roof. The materials were to be preserved as much as possible; the building was listed as being one of ‘national importance’ to the city! Agnes remarked on the amount of children the place housed, and the nuns that looked after them running into thousands.
“My father was a slater, he was buried in the autumn,” said Margaret
“I’m sorry, is your mother still around?” Asked Agnes,
“No, she died when I was eight” she replied, staring at her coffee.
“Oh, that must have been hard!” Margaret shook her head and a tear slipped from her eye and she swiped it away. Agnes was watching her with curiosity, there was something familiar about her and she tried to pinpoint it. “Did she die in the hospital?” She asked.
“Yes, in nineteen fifty eight having a baby,” Replied Margaret, shifting in her seat.
“I remember her, you look just like her, same deep blue eyes and hair as black as coal; her face was pail, oh so pail, it was very sad. I remember the commotion it caused, doctors running about trying to save her, people spoke about her for a long time after. I’m sorry if I upset you” said Agnes.
“You actually remember her!!! I’m glad someone does; afterwards she died, not one word was uttered about her; like she never existed. And I only saw her in my dreams, until they took me there,” Margaret said, pointing to the old rundown building being torn apart.
“You were in there? How did that happen?”
“Three of us went to that awful place, it should be torn down and every bit of gravel destroyed and shipped out of the country. Thousands of people’s insides coil up, every time they pass by. National heritage my ass!!! Some of the cruellest people that walked the planet were living and working in there; In charge of helpless little children.”
Tears left her eyes, and she stood up, her shoulders shaking. Agnes took her arm and guided her outside. They walked to the park and sat on the bench, the sun followed them and a flock of birds began to sing and dance in the large oak trees. “The birds never sang the night I ran away.”
“Ran away? That was brave! Would you like to tell me about it? It’s good to talk, and I’m a good listener!” said Agnes.
“I’m not sure I can, it’s all jumbled up like a matted tapestry, stitched to my very skin.”
“Nightmares resurrected since my father died, and I’m haunted by visions that wake me in the night. Memories erupting catching my veins squeezing them tight; making it hard to breathe. I’m in a dark place of terror; like I’m watching a play and I’m the main character.”
“Pull yourself together” said the doctor, handing me a script for antidepressants; you would think I planned the bloody things!” sighed Margaret.
“Silly bugger hasn’t a clue” said Agnes. “Do you remember much about your mother?”
“The last memory I have; she was lying in a large box. I thought it was a bed and she was sleeping, her hair was brushed hanging over her shoulders and her eyes were closed. I kissed her and tried to take her hand, but I couldn’t see it, and I was whisked away under duress. I felt I had left a piece of myself in that room, nothing was ever the same; like my arm was missing, and no one noticed!” She paused to let the memory unfold and wipe away a tear. “We lived up at the top floor in the old tenement houses, just a few miles down this very road.”
“The next time I saw the box, we were lined up along the stairs, so many people; crammed together, passing it down outside onto the overflowing street. Someone was holding me tight. I could hear my siblings whimper and call out mammy, – where is mammy? I want mammy!”
“I’m not sure when we were taken to that convent? I know it was on a bus and two of my sisters were with me. The big gates opened and a nun that looked like a penguin; with a large black cloak and a long headdress sticking up like two ears, stood looking at us. The sight made us scour in terror; we were taken inside and separated. I remember my sister being taken into the baby room and her screaming. My other sister was taken into another room for young children, she was five.”
“At first, there was a nice nun called Sister Delores she talked to us, read us stories, telling us Jesus loved us. Some of the children would wet the bed. Anxiety separation; she said when I joined them. She would whip the sheets off in the morning, without uttering a word.”
“One morning another evil looking nun was standing at the beds, her name was Sister Hildegard and she began to shout, some children had seen her before and they hid under the beds. Pulling us up one by one, we walked around like ghosts wearing the soiled sheets, skipping to avoid the harsh slap landing on our legs. I learned to wash sheets and bath in stone cold water.”
“You are worthless and sinful, and you will go to hell,” She roared. “I cried for my mother and shook me so hard I vomited. I became afraid to sleep or drink water, encase I went to hell. Then I would go into a deep sleep and one night I woke up and panicked.”
“What did you do Margaret?”
“I ran away. I put my slippers and my housecoat on; opened the large door and ran.”
“That was brave of you, did they catch you?”
“No.” That’s part of my nightmares; I’m running down that road in the pitch blackness; those trees looking like giant monsters, with the wind howling between the branches that hung low, waving me on. Every time I looked up I sobbed, and then the moon came and brightened the road. I’m running tripping up on the slippers, taking them off hurting my feet, tears almost blinding me; the cold going right through my flimsy nightdress; leaving me numb. There were daffodils dancing in the breeze; throwing shadows on the ground.”
She stopped to wipe the tears; hiccupping at times and shaking her head with the memory. “A large fox ran towards me making me run faster. On reaching the dark close, I continued to run up the stairs; my slippers in hand; panting and banging at the door shouting, ‘daddy,’ ‘daddy,’ the door opened and he stood looking at me.”
“I ran away daddy, you have to get my sisters out.” He smelt of cigarettes, alcohol and was unsteady on his feet. He took my hand; brought me inside and I learned to make tea. I was so cold I went into his bed; that was a mistake, he told me I was ‘just like my mother’ and I learned to keep secrets. Most days after that became a living nightmare.” Agnes took Margaret’s hand squeezing it reassuringly.
“Every step on that road is instilled in my brain and the crevices of my body; the sight of that broken building has stirred them up. I’m thirty five; will I ever get rid of them?”
“You were brave running away! I was never that brave, although, I had nowhere to run to. I stayed till I was fifteen. I remember that wicked nun with the beady eyes and a tongue of leather that struck your soul with every word. There was one human being that worked on kindness and she showed me how prayer could help; bye introducing me to Michael!”
Margaret stood looking at her friend, wonder written all over her face. “You were in there? But you couldn’t have been! And who’s Michael? You are the happiest person in that hospital apart for the few that are dying, and have settled into a mode of peacefulness!”
“I was, and I had secrets too; but they are long gone, executed with the help of Michael and a nice woman that took me down the same road you are heading. I wanted to end it, and hide the tears and the shame that brought the nightmares. She gave me a picture when I was very young and she was leaving. She said, when you are lonely or troubled, talk to Michael!”
Reaching into her bag she pulled out a picture; “this is Michael, an Arch Angel! We can’t see him; but he can see and hear us and can help us to heal. His job is to do away with the bad demons that walk the planet for the ruination of others. Just ask him for help when all the images appear; you’ll be amazed at the outcome! It’s time to tell the secrets, for they are no use to anyone; they are like sleeping giants needing to be woken and eradicated.”
“Blind faith helped me! Believing in someone I couldn’t see; but felt his strength within me, set my soul free! Those wicked nuns were evil! They were doing ‘God’s work’ and were supposed to be helping children; not beating them.”
“I can bring you to the person that helped change my life; giving me the will to live and returning sleep-full nights. She is the wisest person I know, she was also the nun that introduced me to Michael. She left the order as she was under attack from superiors for being ‘soft’ and ‘loving’ to the children. We all have a calling; hers was to become a councillor, someone that helps heal people from the inside out.” She said, “Inside all adults that lived through this type of trauma; lives a little child waiting to be free and loved! I can’t say I believed in God until I met her, she helped me realise; life is short, precious, and we have choice to live it in harmony or misery.” Margaret laughed whole-heatedly stirring the birds, and said.
“We all need friends we can trust. A simple conversation with her, while holding Michael in your hand can unravel un-conscious memories, sealed up like in a casket; until a storm like the sight of that old building unleashes them. If that building so important to the city, can have all its ghosts eradicated, and stand fresh like new; then so can its people, starting with you my friend” Said Agnes, slipping Michael’s picture into Margaret’s hand.