Thursday, September 21st 1946
Liffey MacBaine’s labour pains started around nine that morning. She was preparing
vegetables for the midday meal when she felt the first spasm deep in her belly; dropping a
half peeled potato into the sink and grasping the wooden work-top.
Kate was tidying-up the room, singing along to a tune on the radio, but she heard Liffey’s moan and turned to comprehend the situation with a look of alarm that matched the one on the face of the wide-eyed young woman clutching her swollen paunch.
‘Oh, my God,’ Kate mumbled and, pulling herself together, directed a louder voice towards the curtained doorway that led into the store. ‘Mrs MacBaine,’ she called.‘Come quickly will you?! It’s Liffey. I think the bairn’s on its way.’ She switched off the music and helped
Liffey to waddle across to a chair. She told her not to worry, and a moment later Tilda MacBaine was with her sons wives, calming them down and taking charge with her matter of fact, no-nonsense manner.
This would be the start of a lengthy process, she told them, encouraging Liffey to relax and take some deep breaths. ‘The first one always takes its time,’ she said, checking her daughter-in-law’s forehead with the back of her hand. ‘So there’s no point in rushing you down to the hospital just yet.’
Liffey worked to control her breathing and the wave of pain began to subside.
Tilda told her they’d keep a check on her contractions throughout the morning, and Liffey asked her how long it was likely to be before the baby arrived.
‘Well, Billy was my first,’ she answered. ‘And that little devil put me through more than twenty hours of it before he showed up. Ronnie, though, couldn’t wait to make his grand entrance. He started his business at seven in the evening, I remember, and popped like a pea from a pod just after midnight.’
Liffey balked at the thought of both scenarios, and Kate, who was almost three months into her own pregnancy, visibly paled.
‘Oh, you young people want everything easy these days,’ Tilda scolded. ‘But let me tell you girls, having a baby’s always been hard work. That’s how it was for our mothers and that’s just the way it is for all of us… nothings ever going to change that. As Granny
MacBaine used to say, putting it in there’s fun enough, but getting it out’s another story. First you grin…then you bear it.’ Tilda chuckled to herself, but her tone was sympathetic as she reassured Liffey that everything would be fine. ‘After all, it’s the most natural thing in the world,’ she said, moving to fill the huge copper kettle standing by the sink. ‘You’ll do
your share of puffing and pushing, that’s for sure, but come this time tomorrow you’ll have left all that behind and you’ll be bonding and…’ Tilda’s voice trailed off as she turned on the tap. She cringed inside, wanting to bite her tongue off, thankful for the sound of water pouring into the kettle. She’d been about to tell Liffey MacBaine that by this time tomorrow she’d be bonding and falling in love with the little bundle of life suckling at her breast; when, in actuality, they all knew that nothing could be further from the truth for the woman who’d married Tilda’s youngest son four months earlier. The planned reality for her was to be very different from that enjoyed by most nursing mothers. Tomorrow, or shortly thereafter,
Liffey’s new-born baby was to be taken from her and she would never see it again.
Tilda stretched her time at the sink before carrying the over-full kettle across to the stove. ‘We’ll keep a teapot brewed all morning,’ she said, water droplets sizzling and spitting on the hot black surface. ‘We’ll be more than grateful for the odd cup or two as the day moves
along, believe me.’ She told Liffey she might feel better lying down and helped her out of her chair. ‘If you can climb the stairs, dear, I think you’ll be more comfortable up on my bed, away from everyone.’
‘No, no. That’s kind of you,’ Liffey said, ‘but I’ll be fine in my room…honestly.’ They moved to the other side of the living area and Kate hurried to open the door that swung into a poky little bedroom. The space was barely wide enough to take the double bed in it, and natural light was meanly rationed through a skylight high on the wall. Originally used as a storage area, the room had been hastily converted to accommodate Ronnie and Liffey, in time for their wedding day, last May. It was far from ideal, having been hot and stuffy throughout the summer, but it represented a temporary solution to their current circumstances, and at least the two of them had some privacy at night when the rest of the family went to their beds on the upper floor.
Liffey had left a waterproof sheet folded on the bed, and Tilda spread it out for her. Slipping her shoes off, Liffey eased herself up onto the springy mattress. The old frame
squeaked while she settled herself and Tilda un-tucked some of the bed’s multi-coloured quilt to pull it over the young woman’s tummy and legs.
Liffey grimaced with the onset of another contraction and grasped Tilda’s hand. ‘Should we get a message to Ronnie?’ she managed to ask through clenched teeth.
‘Not yet, dear,’ the woman answered, running her fingers through Liffey’s dark brown hair. ‘We can leave it a while before we start worrying him. Besides, we don’t want those men of ours getting under our feet until it’s absolutely necessary.’
‘He’s only working out by Langdon,’ Kate reminded her sister-in-law. ‘It’ll take him next to no time to get back into town.’
‘Can we call Aunt Helen, though?’ Liffey panted. ‘She said she needed to know as soon as possible if she’s to get down here and organize everything in good time.’
Tilda patted her daughter-in-law’s hand and promised she’d take care of it.
The doorbell jingled out in the store and Tilda told Kate to look after Liffey while she went and attended to customers. ‘Let me know if she has any kind of a show,’ she said. ‘And call me straight away if her waters break.’
Liffey turned on her side, trying to find a better position, waiting for the cramp to pass.
Looking up at Kate, sitting on the edge of the bed, she realized that she was as scared as she
was herself. She tried to smile and wanted to tell her that it really wasn’t too bad, but lost the notion instantly as the spasm peaked, making her cry out again instead.
When the pain ebbed, Liffey levelled her breathing and calmed herself, holding on to her mother-in-law’s assertion that this was how it was for everyone, persuading herself that,
painful though it might be, she would do her best to muster her female resources and embrace the natural rhythm of the process. She thanked Kate for staying with her and, remembering someone saying that a few lucky women were actually able to doze between their
contractions, closed her eyes, praying that she might be one amongst them.
‘I’ll fetch a towel to mop your brow,’ Kate whispered; and, with her sister-in-law heading into the kitchen, Liffey found herself thinking about the way things had unfolded over recent months, appreciative of the close bond she’d formed with Billy MacBaine’s young Scottish war-bride.
Earlier in the year, Kate had boarded the R.M.S. Aquitania, at Southampton, to follow her new husband across the Atlantic, and most of Canada, to join him and his family in Calgary. She’d finally arrived late in March, and two months later Liffey had married Ronnie, and become the third female living in the MacBaine household.
Liffey and Kate had hit it off straight away. They possessed the same sharp sense of
humour, laughing a lot while they helped each other to adapt to their new surroundings and the ways of the close family they’d become a part of. Both women were dark haired and pretty. They were of similar medium build and, despite some apparent differences between them, at first glance you might well have believed they were sisters. They both smiled easily and shared the same brown eyes, but Kate’s lips were thinner than Liffey’s and, whereas
Kate’s nose was classically aquiline, Liffey’s was pert and more rounded. Their voices were distinctly unalike; Kate’s being moderately pitched and rich with the unmistakable lilt of her Celtic homeland, whilst Liffey’s was clearly that of a Western Canadian. When she spoke, the timbre of her voice was a little deeper than that of most young women, and its unusual huskiness made her sound a lot like Barbara Stanwyck.
Liffey recalled how she and the MacBaines had waited to greet Kate off the War-Bride
Special when it pulled into the city station on a wet Friday morning.
For days, the huge rail-road engine had hauled its precious cargo of immigrant wives and fractious infants more than two thousand miles from their original point of landfall, on the East Coast. Singly, or in clusters, they’d spilled out of the train into the arms of their
husbands and unfamiliar in-laws, who waited for them on crowded city platforms -or lonely rural ones - all along the route.
By the time it arrived in Calgary, the train was considerably shorter than it had been at the outset of its journey in Halifax, but the remaining carriages were still packed with the European brides of Canadian servicemen. And, with it coasting into the station, many of them had hung from the train’s open windows, desperate to catch an early glimpse of the men most of them had not seen in months.
When the whistle blew to herald their arrival, a band began to play, and a spontaneous
cheer had gone up from those gathered on the platform, echoing overhead and only
diminishing as the mighty steam-engine hissed its way to a lumbering halt and its brakes locked on.
Men had broken from their family groups to find their wives; some grasping at hands
stretched out from windows along the train, while others were fortunate enough to find their loved ones among the first of the women clambering down from the high carriages.
Billy could hardly contain his excitement, scouring the faces of those dropping down into welcoming arms. All around him couples hugged and babies cried; and Liffey had been touched by the glowing expression of expectation on Billy’s face, craning his neck, anticipating the imminent appearance of his young wife.
The queue of women leaving the carriages had dwindled to just a trickle of stragglers, and those who did remain on board, with tired, envious faces glued to the windows, were brides committed to continuing the arduous rail journey even further west, towards the train’s ultimate destination in Vancouver.
Billy had turned to his family with a worried shrug of the shoulders and a nervous smile, but almost immediately he’d given a whoop of delight and raced off towards the rear of the parked train, where two young women were attempting to scramble down the steep railed
steps, struggling with suitcases and two squawking, red-faced infants.
Typically, Kate had waited to assist one of her exhausted travelling companions before
getting off herself. But then both husbands had arrived simultaneously to lift them down; one to wrap his arms around his wife and children, the other to sweep his young Scottish love into his arms and smother her with kisses.
The vivid imagery, running in Liffey’s mind like a romantic movie, flickered and
disappeared, lost to another wave of pain gripping her lower body. When she opened her
eyes, Kate was back at her side, reassuring her, telling her to be brave.
Later, Kate fluffed up the pillows behind her and went to pour them both some tea. When she returned, Liffey was sitting on the edge of the bed with her head in her hands. She was trying to speak, but her shoulders heaved as if she were about to break down and cry.
‘Oh, Liffey, Liffey,’ Kate said, sitting down beside her, gently pulling her hands from her face. ‘Whatever is it?’
Liffey’s gratitude for her friend’s kindness was whole, but that generosity of spirit,
displayed so naturally towards her by someone she’d only known for a few months, had simply gone to highlight the obvious absence of her parents loving support; the thought of her mother triggering a crushing sense of loneliness within her and bringing an ache to her heart.
Kate drew Liffey into her arms and, in that moment, months of anxiety and pent up emotion finally found a physical breach, welling in Liffey’s eyes and flowing down her cheeks.
‘Let it out, Liffey,’ Kate told her, holding her close, rocking her. ‘You’ve been through a lot…and something has to give.’
‘I want my baby,’ Liffey croaked through her tears. ‘I just want my baby.’
Kate sighed, and stroked Liffey’s head.
‘I don’t know how I ever got to this point,’ Liffey cried. ‘But it all seems so unreal now. I can’t believe what I’m doing.’ She wiped her eyes with her hand, and sniffled, ‘I’ve prayed every night that Ronnie would come around in the end and accept the baby as his own.’
‘We all have, Liffey,’ Kate said softly. ‘Ronnie loves you with all his heart. There’s no doubt about that…everyone can see it.’
‘But not enough to accept my child.’
‘He’s just a young guy, Liffey. He doesn’t know how to tackle a situation like this. He
‘No, no. That’s not true at all,’ Liffey said, dabbing her eyes with the cloth Kate had given her. ‘We made our agreement ages ago and he was happy to latch on to the idea of us giving the baby up and telling the world it was stillborn.’ She placed her hands on her belly. ‘And as far as time’s concerned, you can see there’s very little left.’
Kate regarded her sister-in-law thoughtfully. There was something she wanted to tell her, but for the moment she hesitated. Besides, Liffey had more to say.
‘Oh, I know what you’re going to tell me, Kate. You’re going to tell me that I should stop feeling sorry for myself and just be grateful for the fact that Ronnie ever married me at all. You’re right of course. And you’re probably right, too, thinking what all of you think… that Ronnie’s a fool…that he must have been out of his mind to have ever gotten himself involved with a faithless little tramp who had the seed of another man’s child planted in her belly when he came back to her from the war!’
Kate turned Liffey to face her full on and, with a stern tone of voice, said, ‘Now, just you listen to me, Liffey MacBaine. What you’ve just said is absolute nonsense and couldn’t be further from the truth. Do you honestly believe you’d have been so warmly received by this family if it were? A lot of girls finding themselves in your predicament would have lied to a boyfriend and tried to convince him that the baby she carried was his rather than someone
else’s. You didn’t, because you’re far too honest a soul to have even thought of that. You’re nothing less than a decent girl and don’t you ever forget it. There’s not a single person in this household who sees you as a tramp, so you can get that daft notion right out of your head.’
Liffey absorbed her friend’s words, but she felt worthless and the tears kept on falling.
Kate cast her eyes to the ceiling, before taking Liffey’s hand and saying there was
something she had to tell her. ‘I might well be wiser keeping my mouth shut, because I really wouldn’t want to give you false hope at a time like this. But on the other hand, as your friend, I don’t want to keep anything from you either.’
Liffey’s eyes widened.
‘Billy’s told me, how recently, he’s noticed a big change in Ronnie’s attitude towards the bairn. I don’t know if you’re aware of it too, but it seems that Ronnie’s been talking to Billy as if you were both thinking of keeping it?’
Lifey looked baffled. ‘That’s the first I’ve heard of it, Kate. He’s certainly said nothing along those lines to me.’ Thinking about it, she added, ‘In fact, we’ve barely discussed it at all since we made our decision months ago.’
‘I’m simply telling you what Billy believes,’ Kate said. ‘You know how close the two of them are, and Billy’s quite a shrewd person don’t forget.’
‘But what has Ronnie actually said to make him think that?’ Liffey asked, her mind racing.
‘Well, for a start, Ronnie’s been talking about the apartment you’re moving into next month. He told Billy he thought that a one bed-roomed place was far too small for a family. And, down at the bar the other evening, he started going on about what sex the bairn was likely to be. He even mentioned some names he fancied. Seriously, Liffey, Billy’s convinced that he wants you to keep it.’
Kate’s words were like a blessed song to Liffey’s ears, and the salty tears reappearing in her eyes were ones of early relief. Could it really be possible, she asked herself, that Ronnie had changed his mind at the eleventh hour; that the man she adored was truly prepared to spurn his youthful pride to recognize her child and join her in bringing it up as his own? Had
heaven finally heard her prayers and pardoned her after all? Liffey’s mind reeled with excited optimism. Even as her body tensed with the onset of another griping spasm, her lifted spirits seemed to lessen the pain; and she held on to the inspiring idea that if Ronnie had now been blessed with enough understanding to show her his compassion, then might it not be too much to expect an eventual, similar forgiveness from her mother too?
Douglas and Billy MacBaine had set off for market at seven o’clock that morning and
on the way home they’d spent an hour or so with a motor trader, out at Cochrane, haggling over the price of a new truck that was badly needed for the family’s growing business. Father and son hauled their boxes of fresh produce into the store at midday, pleased as punch with them-selves for the bargain deal they’d finally struck for the replacement vehicle, and looking forward to a hearty lunch waiting for them on the living room table. Putting his last box down on the counter, Douglas crept towards his tiny wife with his shoulders hunched, like Groucho Marx, fluttering his fingers round an invisible cigar. He grasped a reluctant Tilda round the waist and said, ‘I say, I say, my little chickadee…what gastronomic feast awaits these starved and worn out men-folk of yours, this fine September day?’
Tilda tut-tutted and slapped his hands away, po-faced and totally under-awed by her
grinning husband’s rather confused impression. ‘There’ll be no lunch served in this restaurant today,’ she told the laughing pair. ‘Just beyond that curtain there’s a baby battling its way into the world. So, unless one of you took a midwifery class on your way home this morning, I suggest you take yourselves off to Dawson’s Diner for the next couple of hours.’ Her words wiped the smirks straight off their faces, but Tilda came close to laughing herself, watching them making their white faced, scared-rabbit retreat to the door. ‘Don’t go taking more than a beer each, either,’ she called out after them. ‘One of you’ll have to drive Liffey down to the hospital when her time comes.’
By mid afternoon, Liffey had moved into the second stage of her labour; the contractions advancing to the point where they were coming continuously, making her moan all the more and wearing her down.
Kate hated seeing her friend in such discomfort; fearful, too, in the knowledge that a similar ordeal was waiting just around the corner for her. She was shaking her head, wondering just how much a woman was expected to suffer for the sake of human procreation, when Liffey suddenly grabbed her arm and announced her awareness of a warm dampness spreading
When Kate hurried into the shop and nervously whispered the news into her ear, Tilda
MacBaine decided that now was the time for action. With the cool authority of a general
implementing a military strategy, she got her act together. She finished serving the customer standing at the counter, and carried the woman’s laden grocery basket to the door, bidding her a polite good day. Turning the displayed open sign to closed, she instructed Kate to go and fetch the men from Dawson’s. Then she pulled down the blind and, leaving the door unlocked for the others, went to make her call to the hospital.