The first sensation Maura became aware of was a sort of sloshing, slurping sound. Other sensations seemed to indicate she herself was actually a part of this sound, like the tugging and pressure she felt on her tiny body. There was a sudden whack of something — air — assailing her nostrils, now open and no longer filled with fluid. The new air carried a strong Scent to Maura’s brain, something remembered, known. It gradually became identifiable as the Scent belonging to the Gentle Voice, the warm cavern that had held Maura for some time now. It was much stronger now, though. She could almost taste the scent on her rosebud lips and became excited to take in more of it. But that meant more of the sloshing and slurping and the tugging and pulling.
To take itself off the uncomfortable feeling of tugging and pulling, Maura’s mind reviewed her time spent in this warm world. She could hear the Scent singing to her, lulling her with soothing sounds like water running over smooth stones. The Scent was always singing to her, although sometimes Maura would catch sounds in between that seemed far more sad and troubled. The Scent would shudder slightly and Maura would feel a gentle pressure, a clasping of some kind, on her little sphere and body. And Maura would be aware that she, too, felt sad and unhappy. But the clasping part made her want to see more of the Scent.
At last, she made a decision to go with it and moved closer toward the strong scent on the new air, and with a final slurp, she entered this new world. What met her senses was a full-on assault. Loud noises, things clanging, voices shouting, and light — blinding light. Mixed in with the Scent she knew were other smells; harsh, acrid ones she couldn’t identify as belonging to the world she knew. It took some moments as her over-stimulated nervous system quieted and she was able to adjust herself to the new surroundings.
Her tiny nose and ears and body were picking up strong signals from everywhere, but her eyes, the weakest of her senses, couldn’t seem to adjust. Everything was fuzzy, distorted and very, very frightening. It was all mostly bright light, really, with odd, dark shapes moving in and out.
And worst of all, she couldn’t find the Scent — it was out there, but not as close now, she could tell. Suddenly, it was replaced by another Scent, not one she knew, and her whole body convulsed in response to it. The new Scent clasped her tightly (that part Maura liked), but just as quickly unclasped her and laid her on something cold. More sounds followed.
—She’s five pounds and fifteen ounces, what a mite!
—And cute as a button.
—Is the mother okay?
—Sure, but she’s taken it on the chin, poor dote. She’s exhausted.
—Right. Fingers and toes accounted for, check. Eyes responding and reflexes fine, check. Nice head o’hair. I’ll wager mammy was belchin’ and burnin’ up the oul’ gullet on this one!
The sisters gave Maura a thorough cleaning, then wrapped her in a soft blanket and placed her on a small, metal cot. For the next three hours, she felt very disconnected from her Scent and familiar sounds and world. She was very frightened.
She tried to emulate the sound of her Scent singing to her, thinking perhaps she could find the Scent that way. But what came out was more of a screeching, and it startled even herself.
Eventually, a sister came in and scooped Maura up. She was taken down a long corridor of bright lights, more acrid smells and jangly sounds. The sister opened a door to a room where three young women lay in identical beds. Maura was taken to the furthest bed, next to a window, where a small, dark-haired woman lay.
—Up now, Phil…here’s your darlin’ babby. Isn’t she lovely?
Philomena, the dark-haired girl in the bed, sat up painfully, minding the new row of stitches in her belly, and eagerly held her arms out to the sister. She settled Maura into them, holding her close to her breasts, and immediately began half-singing, half-cooing to her. Maura instantly opened her eyes and became acutely aware of comfort. The Scent was back! And closer than ever! She settled into her mother’s arms contentedly and closed her eyes, allowing the exhaustion of this startling, new world to take over. Soon all was dark and warm again.
Philomena was a 27-year old new mother, lying in a cot in a hospital in Cork, Ireland on the 8th of April, 1960. Until last night, she had been living for the past two months at a mother-baby home on the outskirts of Cork City along with twenty other young women. All of them were pregnant and not married to the fathers of their children. There were also the appalling whispers of fathers and brothers, cousins, and even a priest being responsible for some of these pregnancies. And that was the way it was in Ireland . If you made the fearful mistake of becoming pregnant outside of wedlock, no matter the circumstances, you did your time at one of these god-forsaken Gulags run by fearsome nuns who made you feel right shite every waking day.
But where else would Phil have gone? She had no family herself to speak of. Some dim memories would flit across her mind of the mother who would visit her on odd occasions, as she shuttled from one foster family to another, and then finally on to the nuns at age 15 to work for her keep. That was it. No real brother-memories or sister-memories — no sense of who her own father was. Just the constant rootlessness and dependency on others.
So she’d had no choice but to turn to the nuns when she discovered she was pregnant with Robert’s baby.
Philomena had been working in Dublin (her first, real on-her-own-job) as a domestic ward aide in a large hospital when she met Robert. She liked the work and was good at keeping her wards spotless, as well as giving the patients the benefit of her sympathetic and kind nature. Many of the sisters there encouraged her to pursue nursing, and Phil kept that in the back of her mind as her own private dream.
She also liked the other girls she worked with and struck up easy friendships with many of them. All the ward aides roomed together in a section at the back of the hospital for staff. It was certainly no worse than anything the nuns or foster families had offered her as hospice over the years, and it was enhanced by the fact that the girls could pretty much come and go as they pleased within curfew.
So Phil and many of the other young women she worked with would pretty themselves up on Friday nights and rush off to the dances at the old Star in Dublin. They were all meeting up with fellas they were dating, or with new fellas they hoped to meet at the dances. It was at one such fateful dance that Phil was introduced to Robert by her friend, Eileen.
—Hey, Phil, wouldja have a look at that fella over there with my Joe? Is that not dreamy or what?
Philomena glanced over in the direction Eileen indicated and took in a tall, dark-haired man wearing a better-than-average suit. She couldn’t see his face clearly as her vision wasn’t the best, and she hadn’t yet saved enough for new glasses (nor would she necessarily choose to wear them when she went to the Star, remembering the line Marilyn Monroe used in that American film How to Marry a Millionaire: “Men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses”). Plus the lighting in the dance hall was wretched. But going by Eileen’s genuine enthusiasm, Phil could tell Eileen thought she’d snared quite the catch for her.
—Is he not gorgeous? What, are ya an eejit? Are ye lookin where I’m pointin’?
—Sure, sure…I see him. He looks pretty good from here. Who is he?
—A friend of my Joe’s. Joe wants me to set you up with him, Phil. He’s brilliant…comes from good family, Joe says, and has a good, steady job.
—What’s he do, then?
—Joe says he works up Finglas way for a stained glass company — y’know, does all them fancy church windows and the like.
—Is that all ye can say?! Shush now, here they come over…
Eileen and Joe awkwardly made introductions, while Philomena and Robert blushed furiously at one another. Finally, he offered to get her a lemonade and gently guided her by her elbow away from her friends. They wound up in a dark corner of the hall, where the music wasn’t quite so loud and there was no danger of reeling couples dancing into and over them.
—So, howyeh, Phil? Where are ye from? Not from here, I can tell that.
Philomena blushed furiously, always conscious of her somewhat questionable background. But she could tell from the impish grin on Robert’s face that his question was not intended to be judgmental; he was just breaking the ice.
—Em, no. I’m from Wexford way.
The impish grin widened. Robert handed her a lemonade and reached inside his own pocket for a small flask.
—Care for a bit extra in yours?
Phil nervously eyed the flask and realised that Robert had brought a bit stronger concoction to reinforce his bland ade. She shook her head no.
—Cheers, but I’d rather not.
—Well then [he poured a generous measure in his own glass], here’s lookin’ at you, kid!
The man was definitely gorgeous in Phil’s estimation, now that she could see him closer, but she could plainly tell this was a fella who liked to party. Possibly too much. He already seemed a bit well-lubricated. Not unsteady or sloppy, mind you, but clearly a few spiked lemonades down.
Robert finished his drink and asked Phil if she’d like to dance. As they glided back onto the noisy floor, the showband whomping away like mad, she was surprised at what a deft dancer he was. He smoothly whirled her around the floor, never losing his footing or stomping her toes as so many other fellas did.
A few sets later, Phil and Robert, now sweaty and laughing, rejoined Eileen and her Joe. It was nearly closing time, but both couples were not quite ready to call it a night. As Joe had a small flat of his own, he invited everyone round to his place and Phil nervously accepted the invitation with Robert’s enthusiastic encouragement.
As they stepped out of the Star, they were met with a warmish June night and the humid smells coming off the Liffey. Arms linked, the two couples laughingly made their way toward the river, crossing north toward Joe’s ramshackle neighbourhood, singing as they went. Robert’s fine baritone merged nicely with Phil’s own strong soprano, and she shyly smiled up at him as their voices bounced off the river and cobblestones. From somewhere off to their left came a loudly shouted WOULD YOU EVER SHUT THE FUCK UP? All four laughed and wound the song down to a low chorus.
They arrived at Joe’s and climbed the two flights up to his darkened flat. Joe went about flicking on lights and opened the one window in the place. His upper body disappeared out the window and returned with a quartet of bottled stout. Phil accepted a bottle as she was more than thirsty again from the walk and quite sure Joe had nothing of a non-alcoholic variety there.
A radio was switched on and Joe and Eileen began a slow dance, nuzzling and kissing one another as they circled the room, oblivious to Robert and Phil. Robert’s left eyebrow shot up and he motioned Phil to a dilapidated sofa, which served as the only furniture in the room besides two wooden chairs and small table. She sat down next to him and he immediately launched an arm around her. Phil hadn’t much experience with men, and what little she did have was not of a positive quality. During a brief stay working with a farm family when she was 14, Phil was accosted in her room one night as she slept by the foul, sweaty patriarch. Instinctively, she lashed out with a solid foot to his groin and effectively rolled him off her before further harm could be done. The sight of the doughy farmer squealing down the corridor, his startled, now wide-awake wife three steps behind him and shouting questions was nearly worth the cost of Phil’s job. The farmer’s wife stared Philomena down the next day at breakfast, flinty-eyed and convinced that Phil had seduced her lout of a husband. So that was that — out she went and lucky, according to the farmer’s wife, that the gards weren’t called.
Fearful of a future of jobs like this, where’d she be at the mercy of some sex-craved father or husband, she turned to the nuns in Cork for help, where she’d spent most of her limited schooling. Their response was to send her to an institution known as St. Dominick’s up in Waterford, notorious for taking in ‘wayward women’ to do commercial laundry and sewing, often never to see the outside world again. But Phil felt her choices were limited, and besides, the nuns told her because of her fine hand with the needle, she’d be doing fancy sewing instead of the hard, leg-killing laundry work. Still, she’d spent ten years in that dreadful place. Ten years of being taunted by fellow inmates for her somewhat ‘elevated’ status as a seamstress, taunted by the nuns for minor infractions, and taunted by the public every time the girls were all trotted out for May processions or outdoor Masses. It was soul-sucking and Phil feared her decision may have been ill-informed: she was becoming a shapeless, nameless thing like the rest of the inmates and the nuns began to treat her in kind. What little money she’d saved before coming to St. Dominick’s had been given over to the nuns for her ‘keep’. Phil harboured no illusions about the money the nuns made off her stunning, intricately embroidered Irish linen tablecloths. She knew she’d never see a penny of it.
On the brink of becoming a mindless automaton, one day Phil was pulled from the sewing room and told a visitor was there to see her. When she was ushered into the nuns’ ‘special visitor’ parlor, she was confronted by a somewhat wild-looking woman of middle age, her obviously long, thick hair swept up into a whorl with pins. Dark and gray clashed in this whorl and Phil found she couldn’t take her eyes off it. She finally met the face under the hair with her gaze and realised she was staring at her own mother, Honora.