Authors: Anne Bennett
|To Have and to Hold|
|HarperCollins Publishers (2012)|
A stirring saga of a nurse who only wants to do her duty in World War Two and who ends up having to make an agonising choice. Set in Ireland and Birmingham, this is the latest from emerging star of the genre Anne Bennett. Carmel Duffy is the eldest child of a brutal and abusive marriage, and she can't wait to leave home. She's equally determined to have no husband or children of her own, what she wants more than anything is to be a nurse. As soon as she turns eighteen, she heads for Birmingham and begins her training. With her beautiful auburn curls, she draws plenty of attention and her resolve to concentrate on her career is tested when Dr Paul Connolly comes onto her ward and into her life. Gradually he wins her heart, and they agree to marry, both certain that they want no children. They have valuable jobs to do, all the more so when World War Two looms. But those years will change everything: their relationship, their priorities, their very characters. Carmel will find...
To my eldest grandchild and only
granddaughter Briony Wilkes
with all my love.
Carmel was positively mesmerised by the bustling docks at Belfast. She could barely wait to board the mail boat anchored in the dock, fastened tightly to the solid concrete bollards with ropes as thick as a man’s forearm. Yet still the boat moved ever so slightly and Carmel tingled all over as she wondered how it would feel to be aboard that vessel and moving out into the open sea.
Just a little later she stood at the rails and watched the shores of Ireland disappear. She felt not homesickness, but relief, and she gave a defiant toss of her head that set her auburn curls dancing, while the excitement shone in her flashing dark brown eyes as the boat ploughed its way through the waves. Many were sick as the boat listed from side to side, including the nursing nuns that she was travelling with, but Carmel discovered her sea legs and explored the mail boat from end to end.
She was quite disappointed to leave the boat in Liverpool, yet as she and the nuns boarded the train for New Street Station in Birmingham, her insides
turned somersaults with excitement—and a little trepidation. From the station she would be taken to the nurses’ home attached to Birmingham’s General Hospital where she would live for four years. She could barely believe that she was really here at last, and just as far from her family as she had wanted to be. She had known she wouldn’t feel free of her father’s dominance until she reached the shores of Britain. From now on, she decided, her life was to be her own. She would start the same as all the other probationers and no one need know about her earlier life at all. She would try to scrub it from her mind and forget it had ever happened.
But as the train rattled over the rails, taking her to her new life, she allowed herself to remember with great relief all she was leaving behind, like the abject terror her brutal father had always induced in her till she didn’t know that there was any other way to feel, and regarded herself as worthless and of no account.
She would never forget her horrifying schooldays, especially that awful day when she was about seven, when Breda Mulligan, the post mistress’s daughter, had pushed her face close to Carmel’s and said, ‘My mammy said I am not to play with you because you are dirty, smell bad and have nits in your hair.’
It had all been true. Carmel remembered then how the other children had formed a circle around her and chanted tunelessly in the school yard, ‘Carmel Duffy has nits in her hair, nits in her hair, nits in her hair.’ Time and again she had tried to break out of the circle, but the children held firm and pushed her back in. Even now, years later, she recalled crying with helplessness
and fear. As the tears had trickled down her dirty face, they mingled with the snot from her nose that she wiped away with the sleeve of her ragged cardigan. ‘Filthy, snotty Duffy,’ Breda had cried with disgust, and they had all taken up the call. Eventually, one of the teachers, Mrs Mackay, had saved Carmel, scolded and scuppered the children and took Carmel inside to clean her up, but the damage had been done.
After school, the children had been waiting for her, but Mrs Mackay had anticipated that and she left her down at the house. House, huh, more like a shack—and Carmel had been mortified at her teacher glimpsing the hovel she lived in.
Once, Carmel imagined, the small cottage walls had been whitewashed and the thatch thick, but long ago the neglected thatch had had to be removed and lay in a sodden, rotting heap beside the house. The only roof they had then was of corrugated iron, and the sides of the house were reduced to bare stone. The shabby and ill-fitting door was hanging off its hinges, one of the grimy windows covered with cardboard after her father, in a rage, had put his fist through it, and outside was a sea of mud. Carmel wanted to curl up and die with shame.
After Mrs Mackay had told her mother why she had brought Carmel home, her mother, Eve, had waited only until Dennis left the house before boiling up a large pan of water on the fire. She scrubbed Carmel from head to foot, kneading at her hair until her scalp tingled, and then washed her clothes in the water and dried them before the fire.
It made no difference: it was too much fun hounding
someone for any of the bullies to want to stop, and if they were inclined to, Breda would invent some other taunt so that Carmel began to dread going to school. In the end, Mrs Mackay suddenly found she had many jobs to do inside at lunchtime with which she needed Carmel’s help, and when she found the child had arrived with no dinner, which was usually the case, she would always say she couldn’t finish her own and share it with her.
Small wonder Carmel had loved her with a passion and worked like a Trojan to please her, thereby achieving more than anyone expected. She never had one friend, however, because of the reputation of her drunken, violent father, Dennis. The townspeople had the whole family tarred with the same brush. Dennis had an aversion to work of any kind, so that the family were forced to live on charity and were dressed in shabby cast-offs. Many in Letterkenny would shake their heads over the way the children had been brought up and mutter to themselves that, with such a start, what sort of a turnout would the children make at all, at all?
Carmel was the one who had to run the gauntlet every week, doing the shopping for her mother, paying for it with the vouchers from St Vincent de Paul, which were given to the poor of the parish, shaming her further. She would see girls of her own age wandering arm in arm about the town and she had ached to be accepted like that, but she knew that would never happen. She didn’t even look like them, with their clean, respectable clothes, socks and shoes.
However, she refused to lower her head to those disparaging people. It was hard to retain dignity when your
dirty feet were bare and your clothes were on their last legs, but Carmel would raise her chin defiantly and hold their sneering gaze with eyes that flashed fire
‘Do you see the set of that one with the insolent look on her and her head held high, as if indeed she has anything at all to be proud of?’ she heard one women remark, as she passed her in the street.
‘Aye. I’d say they would have trouble with that one,’ her companion replied.
‘And not that one alone, I’m thinking. There’s a whole tribe of them back at that shack of a place.’
‘Aye, and what else can you expect after the rearing they’ve had?’
One by one, the townsfolk waited for the Duffy children to go to the bad. But Carmel had a champion in her teacher, Mrs Mackay. Yet, they both knew that there was neither the money nor the will in the Duffy household to keep a child at school a minute longer than was necessary, however intelligent she was.
As Carmel neared fourteen, Eileen Mackay approached her sister, who was a nursing nun, known as Sister Frances, in Letterkenny Hospital, and asked if there might be an opening for the girl.
‘Only as an orderly just,’ Sister Frances said.
‘There isn’t anything else, anything better that she might train for?’
Sister Frances shook her head. ‘Nothing. But I will take the girl on, if she is agreeable, and we’ll see how she shapes up.’
Carmel shaped up better than Sister Frances could have believed, and it was obvious she loved the work and the patients loved her. Her touch was firm yet gentle,
and her voice calm and low, soothing to the apprehensive.
Within a year she was taking temperatures, helping to dress wounds, wash and feed the frail and helpless, and encourage those who were able to get out of bed to do so. Frances began to wonder how they had ever managed without her.
Carmel was too wise a girl to long for something she couldn’t have, but one day, when she had been at the hospital almost two years, she admitted to Frances that she would have loved to have had the chance to go into nursing. Sister Frances knew that she make a first-rate nurse so she asked the advice of her fellow nursing nuns at the convent.
‘Few of us had secondary education,’ one said, ‘but our training and such was done through the Church. She wouldn’t think of taking the veil herself?’
Frances thought of Carmel and the light of mischief that often danced in her eyes, and she said, ‘I should very much doubt it. Just as I am convinced Carmel would make a very good nurse, I know too that she would make a very bad nun.’
‘There is an exam they can take,’ said another. ‘Of course she might need coaching to pass it. How old is the girl now?’
‘Then you have two years to lick her into some sort of shape,’ the nun said, ‘for they’ll not touch her at all until she is at least eighteen.’
‘Put it to her and see what she says,’ another advised. ‘She might not be willing for all the hard work.’
However, Frances saw how Carmel hugged herself with delight and knew that that hard work wouldn’t bother her a jot if it was moving her a step nearer her objective. ‘This isn’t a foregone conclusion,’ the nun said. ‘You do realise the exam is likely to be quite hard?’
‘Would you help me with the work?’ Carmel asked.
‘Of course,’ Sister Frances said. ‘But your parents…your father…’
‘Is to know nothing about it.’
‘Sister, you have already said it is not a foregone conclusion that I pass the exam,’ Carmel said. ‘Maybe I won’t even get that far. What is the point of telling my father now?’
Frances could see the logic of that and agreed to say nothing for the time being. That evening, when Carmel explained she was on a special training course at the hospital and would be later home at least two nights a week, her mother just accepted it. Only her father asked if she’d get more money because of it.
‘Hardly,’ she snapped. ‘It’s a training course. You just be grateful that you aren’t being asked to pay for it.’
‘You watch your mouth, girl, and the way you talk to me,’ Dennis growled. ‘You’re not too old for a good hiding and don’t you forget it.’
Carmel held her father’s gaze. Let him yell and bawl all he liked. She was going to be a nurse and master of her own life. Marriage, with children and all it entailed, was not the route she would take. No, by God, not for all the tea in China.
She had seen one aspect of marriage in the bruises her mother sported often, and she was well aware what
happened in the marriage bed. It usually began with her mother pleading to be left alone, and then the punches administered, but it always finished the same way—with the rhythmic thump, thump, thump of her parents’ bed head against the wall and the animal grunts of her father, which were perfectly audible over the background noise of her mother’s sobs.
‘Mammy,’ she had said one day, seeing her mother sporting yet another black eye and split lip, ‘how long are you going to put up with Daddy slapping and punching you whenever he has the notion? Stand up to him, for once in your life, why don’t you?’
‘Look at me,’ Eve demanded, standing in front of her daughter. ‘What match am I for your father? Jesus, I’d sooner do battle with a steamroller. I’d likely come off less damaged.’
Carmel knew her mother spoke the truth, for there was little of her, but her husband was built like an ox. Carmel had inherited her mother’s fine bones and slight frame, but Eve was now scrawny thin because she often ate less than a bird so the children could eat a little better, while Carmel, though still slender, got a good meal each day at Letterkenny Hospital. Knowing Dennis Duffy and his love of the drink, whether he had the money or not, Sister Frances had arranged for the money for Carmel’s meals to be taken out at source, so that once a day at least she was well fed. But even so, Carmel and her mother together would be no match for Dennis Duffy.
‘Then tell the priest,’ Carmel said.
‘I did,’ Eve admitted. ‘Just the once, after the first baby was stillborn and I put that down to the beating I had received the day before.’
‘The priest told me I married the man of my own free will, that I married him for better or worse, and he couldn’t come between a man and his wife,’ Eve said bitterly. ‘I was eighteen, and I didn’t bother telling him that it was not my free will at all, and that I had not cared a jot for Dennis Duffy. My opinion had never been asked. My marriage had been arranged by my father in exchange for a parcel of land the Duffy family owned. Think of that, Carmel. A bare green field was prized more highly than me, and that meant I could not appeal to any of my family for help either.’
‘God Almighty!’ Carmel said, for she had never heard this before. ‘Does the priest know that sometimes Daddy near kills you and the weans are petrified rigid of him?’ she demanded. ‘You won’t go across the door if Daddy marks your face. Maybe you should. Let the priest and the townspeople know the manner of man he is altogether.’
‘I’d die of shame, Carmel.’
‘Mammy, it isn’t you that should be ashamed. It’s him,’ Carmel said fiercely.
Eve shook her head. ‘Don’t keep on, Carmel,’ she said. ‘Anyway, the answer from the priest would likely be the same.’
Carmel knew her mother was probably right about that, for the priests seemed in collusion with most of the men of the parish. Did she want a slice of that? You had to be joking.
As for children…Eve had eight living children, two she had miscarried and two more were stillborn. Carmel had seen how tired she had become with each pregnancy
and how each birth had near tore the body from her. Carmel had been helping the midwife at the last few births and had seen the agony of it all etched on her mother’s contorted face and the way she had chewed her bottom lip to try to prevent the screams spiralling out of her, lest her husband hear and be vexed at her making a fuss.
She wanted none of that either, nor the rearing of the children after it. God, hadn’t she had her fill of children, helping bring up the seven younger than herself?
‘I don’t want to train in Derry or Dublin,’ Carmel told Sister Frances that first evening as they settled to work.
‘My father could still reach me if he felt like it.’
‘I want to go to England,’ Carmel said. ‘I don’t care where. I would just feel much safer with a stretch of sea separating us.’