The anaesthesiologist wore a tartan hat.
“Here we go, Mary. Are yee ready? Without waiting for a reply, he began to sing, “Step ye gaily on we go, heel for heel and toe for toe, arm in arm and ore we go, off for Rita’s wedding.” Mary was gone...
“Are ye alright, Mary?”
Mary felt a gentle touch on her arm. She smelt a faint perfume. She opened her eyes and saw her mother’s concerned face. Bernadette Burns was dressed in her Sunday clothes with a matching hat. Her dark brown hair was curling out under it. She had tiny pearls in her ears. At that moment Mary thought her mother was a beautiful sight.
“It’s all over now, love.”
“Oh Mam, I have a lot of pain”
“Hold on, love. I’ll call the nurse”
More morphine was administered. Mary was able to sit up in the bed and smile.
Her back began to ache the year her son, Michael arrived. He was three months old. The official adoption papers came through a year later. Mary had already given birth to three girls. Her eldest, Aishling had just turned four. She didn’t find out for four more years that her womb was tilted into her spine at which point, the pain was unbearable. Mary thought her child bearing years were over. Michael was going to school in just a few months. She wouldn’t allow herself to contemplate the long days she would spend alone.
Mary’s family doctor came to visit the next day. “The operation was a great success but no more pregnancies for the time being”
“Do you mean I might be able to have more children?”
“Yes, but everything needs to heal first.”
“Okay.” Mary looked away. Talking about reproduction with this handsome man made Mary blush.
“Let me know if you need anything.” He patted her arm and left.
Although she was in a lot of pain, she got up and walked around the maternity ward, where she spent the next two weeks recovering. The Coombe was a bright new building, where there were only ten beds per ward. Mary went from bed to bed chatting, holding babies and helping anyone who would allow her.
Nearing the end of her stay at the hospital, Mary strolled down the corridor to broaden her horizons. It was a beautiful spring day. She wanted to see the lilacs in bloom. She missed being outside.
Margaret, a young mother who Mary had met the previous day, was leaning against the window. Her long black hair was hanging down in front of her dark brown eyes. As Mary approached, she noticed that Margaret was shaking.
Mary touched her shoulder. “What’s wrong, Margaret?”
“Oh, you’re very nice but I don’t want to burden you.” She was controlling her pain but her face was swollen and red from crying.
“A problem shared is a problem halved!” Mary tried.
“There’s no point in talking about it. There’s nothing you can do.”
“You never know.”
Only yesterday, Margaret was singing the song “Michelle, ma belle” to her newborn girl.
“You’re worrying me more by not telling me what’s wrong.” Mary put her arm around Margaret. She thought about her own sister, who had a baby when she was nineteen too.
“Just tell me, is the baby alright?”
“Yes, she’s perfect.” The tears rolled over Margaret’s high cheekbones, into her hollow cheeks, rushed down her neck and disappeared into her nylon nightdress.
“Oh thank God for that” Mary replied. “So, what is it? Have ye no family to visit ye?”
“No, they’re in Galway. They don’t even know about Michelle.”
Mary’s mouth and eyes opened wide without her approval.
“What about the Daddy?”
“He left me.” Margaret wiped her nose in her sleeve. “He went off to England. Told me he didn’t mind being with me but he wasn’t ready to be a father. And even though he was so mean, I miss him so much.”
“How old was he?”
“And you’re nineteen?”
“It’s not fair, is it?”
Mary hugged her and Margaret finally let down her guard.
“Mary, I don’t know what to do. I was training to be a nurse. I lost my job because I was pregnant. Now I have no way to pay the rent without working and no one to mind the baby if I do. All I can think of is to go home but I know my mammy won’t want me after shaming the family like this, having a baby out of wedlock.” She gasped for air.
“I told my brother about it and he told me to fuck off and not to come home. I’m going to have to give her up. But I love her so much, I don’t want to.”
“Margaret, I’ll mind her for ye when ye go to work. I’ll be your family.”
“Mary, you have so many kids of your own.”
“Sure they’re all at school in September.” She wiped back a stray hair from Margaret’s face. “You think about it.”
Mary watched out for Margaret during the rest of her stay in the hospital. When leaving, she made sure that Margaret had her phone number and address. Margaret promised to visit and let her know what she’d decided to do.
Mary was still suffering somewhat when she was sent home. Aiden, her husband, bought her a new washing machine to cheer her up and ease her burden. It was a front loader. The husband and wife had spent hours watching the clothes go around the day it arrived. They both agreed that it was better than television.
She was filling it with a load of light colors when the door bell rang.
Mary could see an unfamiliar silhouette behind the stained glass of her front door. When she opened it, Margaret’s sad face greeted her. Margaret attempted a faint smile.
“Margaret, love, come in.” She threw her arms around her new friend.
“I couldn’t take care of her.”
“What did you do with her?”
The tears were already making their way down into her white blouse. She was pale and her eyes were sunken.
“I left her in the orphanage but I couldn’t sign the papers.”
“What does that mean?”
“Well, I just couldn’t sign her over.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I just left her there but no one can adopt her because I couldn’t sign away my right to know where she was.” Margaret could hardly breathe. “I just can’t live if I don’t know where she is and how she’s doing.” They say that I have to sign it or she can’t be adopted.”
“Calm down, love. Let’s have a cup-a-tea.”
Mary filled the kettle while Margaret went to the bathroom to try to compose herself. Mary took out two cups and saucers. She poured milk in the jug, took out the sugar bowl and two spoons. She searched the cupboards for anything resembling a biscuit but came up empty. She took the soft white bread from the wooden bread bin, put some butter in the butter cooler and got the jam from the fridge.
When Margaret returned, Mary poured the tea.
“Margaret,” she began. “I have an idea.”
“I’m going to ask the neighbour to keep an eye Michael. We’ll go down to that orphanage, get this sorted out. And sure, we’ll be back before the girls get out of school.”
Margaret’s mouth hung open.
“Get that tea and bread into ye, ye need your strength. And then, let’s get out of here.”
Mary left the room and returned with her best dress suit on. Her long dark hair was neatly piled on top of her head. Her face was powdered and her lips red. She smelt of L’Air du temps.
She headed for Margaret armed with a hair brush, her makeup kit and a red jacket that was too big for her but it fitted Margaret perfectly.
That evening Aiden returned from a business trip.
The sound of his key in the door sent his offspring darting towards him, like a bullet from a gun.
“Daddy’s home! Daddy’s home!” Mary heard the door open.
“Daddy, Daddy, Daddy.” They would only stop when he had kissed each one.
“Now mammy’s turn.” “Give mammy a kiss!”
Mary was in the kitchen, mashing potatoes. He pecked her cheek.
“Not a bother.”
“Do you know what’s in the lodger’s room?”
“A new baby. Don’t say anything, the kids don’t know.”
“Margaret’s in there too. They’re sleepin’.”
“Who on earth is Margaret?”
“Jasus, Aiden, di ye not listen to a word I say? Margaret is the girl I met in hospital. Her family don’t want anything to do with her as long as she has her baby.”
“So, is she going to stay with us?”
“No, Aiden, ye gobshite. She has to go back to her family and get herself together. She’s only nineteen and she has no husband.”
Aiden scratched the top of his balding head.
“I don’t get it.”
“We’re going to keep the baby.”
“You heard me.”
“Look, we just adopted Michael.”
“You’re always complaining that you need me to stay home and help you, so you must have enough kids.”
“I’ll manage.” She put the pot of potatoes on the table. “Aishling! Rachael! Cindy! Michael! Come for your dinner!”
When the children went to bed, Margaret, Aiden and Mary sat at the table. Mary was feeding Michelle a bottle of warm milk.
“Margaret, we have to say to you what we said to Michael’s parents,” Aiden said.
Margaret looked concerned.
“You have to stay away from us so as not to confuse the child. We will be the parents. That has to be very clear to her.”
“Can I keep in touch with Mary so that I can just know how Michelle is doing?”
“I think that would be okay.”
Mary was smiling at the baby.
They were sitting around the bare wooden table with tea in front of them. For the second time that day Mary’s tea was untouched.
“Margaret, you have to take her away for at least one day so that we can prepare the kids,” Aiden said.
“Can you come and get her on Saturday?” Margaret asked.
“I’ll be over at cock crow,” Mary said, dragging her eyes away from Michelle’s face momentarily.
Mary’s brother-in-law, Brian was the only one in the family who had a car. This acquisition earned him the role as chauffeur for his extended family. When he dropped Mary at her house with Michelle, he didn’t go in for tea as usual.
Mary walked through the garden gate with a squirming human wrapped in a white woollen blanket. She clip clopped with her red high heeled shoes up the path that led to the front door where her children crowded around her. Their new sister had arrived. They had traces of white paint on their faces and hands and were dressed in their best clothes. Each child had a toy of their own that they had washed with great care as a welcome present for the new baby. Mary went into the living room to see the big present. It was a crib that Aiden and the kids had painted white that morning while Mary had gone to get the baby.
“Mammy, this was cousin Lorraine’s crib” Aishling declared.
“No it wasn’t.”
“Well, it said Lorraine on it before we painted it.”
“No keepin’ any secrets from you now, ye great little reader.” Aiden ruffled Aishling’s hair.
“I have to make the child a bottle before she starts fussin’.” Mary put the smiling baby in her new bed with four adoring children around her, telling her how much they loved her and how happy they were that she was their sister.
“Aiden, keep an eye on them, will ye?”
Mary swaggered away from the scene with her head high, her chest stuck out, sweeping an uneasy feeling under the carpet of her mind...
The following year, two days after Michelle’s first birthday, Carolyn was born. And over the next eight years, Mary gave birth to three more boys.