I’ll never forget those doors. They are imprinted on my soul. They are the doors that I walked through, heavily pregnant and scared to death, and the doors that I walked out of, my belly flat and my arms empty.
It was the priest who told my distraught mother about the place. “Let me take her there,” he had said, putting a pastoral arm around her and offering her a creased handkerchief from the pocket of his cassock. “No-one will know that she’s sinned and the nuns will take good care of her.”
They didn’t, of course. The so-called ‘taking care’ amounted to feeding me and my fellow sinners and providing a bed. The rest of their time was taken up with telling us how many ways God would show us that we were sinners and how we had ruined our lives and would never find a man willing to marry us. I hated it there.
Things improved a little after my son was born. I loved him with a passion I could not have imagined. He was part of me and I would hurry through my ‘household duties’ with exemplary obedience so I could spend every spare minute in the nursery – until he’d learned to smile. That morning, he beamed at me before I left him and I couldn’t wait to see that smile again at the end of the day. But on my return, the crib was empty and the nuns met my hysteria and pleading with a silence which branded my soul.
I met Bill at work about five years later. We shared a bit of banter over an illicit cigarette and he asked me to go with him to the pictures. By that time, I had wrapped the void in my heart and sealed it. He never knew for certain, though I think he suspected I was hiding something. I had developed an unconquerable fear of religious statues, and my first pregnancy with Bill’s child was tortured by an irrational terror and a ferocious protectiveness for the baby inside me.
“Let’s get married in our local Church,” he’d said, only a couple of months into our relationship. “I don’t think I could handle telling my mother it’s going to be a registry office.”
But I told him it was me he was marrying, not his mother, and there was no way I was going to stand in a church reciting vows like a hypocrite. Of course, he gave in – because he loved me. I couldn’t help his disappointment – or his mother’s. Somewhere in my heart was a chamber of lead which even he couldn’t melt.
I tried to forget – I truly did. Bill and I had the girls, and I immersed myself in their upbringing. But the guilt was always there, lurking in dark corners, waiting to spring out and choke me. Where had they sent my little son? I didn’t even know if my tiny boy had survived. I used to celebrate his birthday every year, though Bill never cottoned on. On 18th May, I would book a trip to the theatre or the cinema for the whole family, and I would indulge my fantasy that I had reserved five seats instead of four.
I lost Bill last year. The emptiness I had hidden for thirty years became a vacuum in my heart, and a compulsion to find my child rose through the void. That’s how I find myself here once again, outside the convent, hand poised over the doorbell, frozen in a time warp. The answer is in the ledger somewhere inside.