The Fish Ladder

The Fish Ladder by Katharine Norbury Read Free Book Online

Book: The Fish Ladder by Katharine Norbury Read Free Book Online
Authors: Katharine Norbury
circuits and fairy-light bulbs.
    ‘Can we help you?’ As I turned and walked back into the hallway I almost knocked over two of the sisters.
    ‘Oh! Yes. I’m sorry. There was no one in reception.’ The sisters waited. One of them was about my own age, while the other was ancient, the crown of her veiled head barely reaching the shoulder of the younger nun. I found myself thinking of a pepper-pot.
    ‘I was wondering if it might be possible that I was born here?’ The nuns seemed unfazed by the question.
    ‘Yes,’ the younger one replied, ‘it is. In fact, if you were born in a hospital, in this part of Liverpool, then there was nowhere else. What’s your name?’
    ‘We can look up your records,’ said the older nun, ‘though I’m sorry that they’re not of the best.’
    ‘Actually, I was adopted as a child, and my name has been changed, but I know the name on my birth certificate: Marie Therese’, and I mentioned my surname. The two nuns lifted their arms in unison, white puppets acting surrender.
    ‘Sister Marie Therese!’ they both said. I looked over my shoulder, thought perhaps someone was standing there. There was nobody.
    ‘Sister Marie Therese?’ I asked.
    ‘Yes,’ the older sister said, and turned to the younger woman next to her.
    ‘Could Sister Marie Therese help me?’ I asked.
    ‘Yes,’ said the older nun.
    ‘Can I meet her?’
    ‘No,’ said the younger sister. ‘She’s died, ten years ago. But we know who you are.’
    And as we stood in the hallway they told me the story, finishing one another’s sentences, of the midwife who had been left, quite literally, holding the baby and of the mother who had fled the hospital. The younger sister seemed to be as familiar with the details as the older nun who had witnessed them. The midwife’s name was Sister Marie Therese and she had taken charge of me, and looked after me, and kept me until a home could be found for me. ‘She baptised you and she gave you her name.’
    Whether this was Sister Marie Therese’s own name, or one that she had taken on entering the Convent, I didn’t think to ask. There was no time for me to register any feelings about the discovery, and loss, in under a minute, of my namesake. The idea, the fact, that I had one.
    The sisters were gentle, animated. They seemed to be not at all surprised by what was happening, no matter how unlikely. They took an almost childlike pleasure in the continuance of an interrupted narrative. They showed me the room where I had slept, the cupboard where my nappies were stored, and where the baby food was kept. They showed me the room where I was born, which was now an office. Grey-metal filing drawers belched disorganised paperwork. I noticed a heavy glass paperweight with the three-tiered crown and crossed keys of the papal coat of arms. A tree filled the window. ‘It would have been here already on the day of your birth. It would have been the first green thing you saw.’
    I had got the idea that this must have been a Catholic mother-and-baby home, and presumed my story to be a common one. But no! The sisters were even a little put out by the suggestion. It was a hospital, a private nursing home, just as the ladies on the beach had said it was. Why was I trying to reduce this extraordinary circumstance, to render it commonplace? The sisters would have none of it; I was the only one, Sister Marie Therese’s baby.
    There were more sisters now. They didn’t stop what they were doing, the internal pathway of their lives adhering to a proscribed invisible order, but they looked, pausing briefly in their steps. Word had gone about: ‘Tis Sister Marie Therese’s baby, and she’s come back to us!’ I felt their curious eyes, their kindly faces, those who had joined the Convent in more recent years seemingly as familiar with the story as the older nuns. I had a sensation of being contained within a mechanism. My unveiled hair and dark clothes, which trapped the scent of the outdoors

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