The commotion outside startled me, and the pills in my hand spilled out onto the carpet. My palm was stained a sickly ochre from the dye blending with perspiration. How long had I been clutching them? Across the room, the face of the clock was blurred. But it must have been hours.
I ignored the knock at first, determined to swallow the rest of the little capsules, each one bringing me closer to the sleep from which I would never wake. Surely, two decades was enough penance. Maybe tonight I could do it.
But whoever was at my front door was persistent. I left the pills on the floor to be considered later, and fumbled around the top of the chest of drawers until I found my spectacles. My hand brushed against the side of a tarnished silver picture frame, teetering it until it landed faceup. It was the only photograph I possessed. The sepia-toned visage of a young man looked back at me, mouth bent to the side in a whistle, captured unknowingly. The only evidence I would allow of my sin.
My feet found the slippers, laid symmetrically beside my bed, and I picked up the housecoat folded over the chair. With the habit of a distant vanity, I ran my fingers through my hair. But I had long since learned to avoid mirrors, and did not glance at the one that came with the rented rooms.
I flipped the switch and grimaced at the flood of light. The knocking stopped. I slid the chain off its track, and opened the door just enough to peer out at the intruder.
It was one of the Campbell children. There were so many, but this towering boy was one of the older ones. Thomas. Tommy. Timothy. It didn’t matter.
“What do you want at this hour?”
The moon was high in the sky, and the night had already taken on the stillness that invites ghosts and nightmares.
“It’s my mum. She’s sick. Bad.”
“Is it the baby? It’s not her time for another few weeks.”
“I guess God thinks differently. It’s coming. But something isn’t right this time.”
“God has nothing to do with it.”
He disregarded my blasphemy. Most people did when the demand for my nursing skills in these nothing towns outweighed their desire for pious company.
“I brought the truck.”
It was a charitable word for the sad scrap of metal that awaited us. It caved under our collective weight, with his being woefully undernourished and mine making up the difference. I thought for a moment that it would be faster—and less perilous—to walk the four miles to the Campbell farm. But I said nothing. Perhaps it would combust into a fiery pyre, and the pills would be rendered unnecessary.
We drove in silence, save for the sputtering of the engine and the crackle of the poorly paved road beneath the tires. In the illumination of the stars I studied my hands, their spiderweb scars mangling them into something that still appalled me, even after so much time. My nails remained incongruously pretty, although they hadn’t seen polish since the war.
The boy spoke only once more, words that were innocent enough. Words that brought me back to the aged photograph lying abandoned at my bedside.
“My brother went to fetch Father Trammel, but he was out of town. He had a houseguest, though. A Father McCarthy. He’s coming straight away.”
McCarthy. I froze as the words possessed my ears. Of course there were thousands of people with that surname, but I had not encountered one in some time. And there was only one McCarthy who had meant anything. Who had meant everything.
Bootle, May 1937
“Good afternoon, Miss Westcott. How nice to see you.” The soft garnet cheeks of the secretary matched my own, though hers were painted on with enthusiastic strokes and mine were the consequence of an unintended sprint through the pockmarked streets of Bootle.
“And the same to you, Miss Ellis,” I replied. “Are you feeling better? They said that you were out sick last time I came.”
“Doing much better, and you’re an angel for asking.” She glanced at her wristwatch. “You’re a bit later than usual, aren’t you, my dear?”
“The bus got a flat down on Southport Road, and I came the rest of the way on foot.”
“That’s quite a hike for a young lady.”
“They didn’t know when a replacement would arrive, and I wanted to catch Charles before his nap.” I had been unsuccessful in avoiding the asphalt cavities filled by a rainstorm the previous day, and the left side of my skirt displayed fan-shaped remains of mud kicked up by a motorcar in a hurry of its own. But, seated behind the opaque glass window that she had opened at the jingle of the front door, she was unable to see below my waist.
Miss Ellis nodded in a robust motion that emanated from her shoulders. “Aye, you’ve not got long. He ate just a bit ago and should be out on his walk now.”
I glanced at my own wristwatch. I couldn’t miss the last bus back home. How would I explain what I was doing outside of Liverpool?
Miss Ellis’s attention returned to the shiny black typewriter in front of her, and I watched as her fingers danced across the keys. They paused midair, and she looked back up at me. “Did you need anything else, my girl?”
“I just wanted to ask you a favor.”
“Anything for you. You know that. Now, what is it?” She patted my hand in her familiar fashion.
“I’m going away at the end of the summer. If I write to Charles, would you read my letters to him?”
Her brow furrowed in confusion, as if I had forgotten that my twin brother was deaf and blind.
“Oh, don’t look at me like that, Miss Ellis. I know it sounds absurd. But I want to believe that he’d feel the vibrations of your voice, and it would comfort me to know that he had a bit of companionship in this place.”
“Heavens, dear—of course I will. But you don’t have to worry about him being lonely. He’s made a friend.”
“He has? Another resident?”
“No, no, not one of them. It’s the gardener. Well, the son of the gardener. Weekend help. He spends a bit of time with your brother when he’s here. It’s not much, but it’s a bright time for the poor boy. I’ve even seen a smile pass on Charles’s face. Twice now!”
I stood up straight, heartened by this revelation. My brother could be difficult at times, and his care was generally relegated to the newest orderly, like an unwanted midnight shift at a factory.
“Yes, it’s true,” she added. “You’ll see soon enough. But, tell me. Why the letters? Where are you going, love?”