Cara lied when the man asked the reason for her travels. With one hand, shaking and the other firmly holding on to her bag, she handed him her ticket.
Belfast Liverpool! Belfast Liverpool! Why did he need to know? Why did anyone need to know?
“I am visiting a sick relative. It's my sister. She fell from a ladder while dusting the ceiling. I've come to help out with the children. It's three boys, although Lenny is almost eleven now.” The trick was in the details. The officer frown and blew a puff of smoke in Cara's face. His breath reeked of a mixture of dead fish, eggs and burned wood but that was nothing compared to the smell of Guinness and piss that hovered around the second class quarters. Still, Cara took in a large inhale and let her bag fall on the wooden floor. In a few hours, she'll arrive in Liverpool and by then, only a short bus ride would separate her from freedom.
Her cabin had two small bunk beds, a sink and a tiny porthole. From a distance, she could see the yellow fields and bushy trees from the old village, she was leaving behind. Killian would have finished diner by now and be on his way to the pub, to drink twice his weight in beer.
“Want me to come with love?”, he had offered but Cara refused.
“Nah love. I'll be just fine on me own. You stay here and you mind the dog.”
The Ulster Queen blasted a thundering howl, signalling departure. The cabin door swung open and a large red-headed woman made her entrance. She brought in two suitcases and a large linen bag, clearly too small for the six baskets of pies and canned goods, she was carrying.
“Hi, there! I'm Deirdre. My...my....these cabins are getting better by the minute I'd say.”
“Do they? It's my first time” replied Cara.
“Is it love? Well, don't you worry. I've done more crossing than Columbus and Cook put together. I'll take care of you.”
“I'm sure that won't be necessary.”
“Don't you worry love. You're in good hands.”
Aching for some peace and quiet, Cara went for a walk on the deck. The frosty sea air stroke her skin like down feathers. Groups and families soon joined in. She crossed path with a young couple and later on with an older lady, walking with her grandson. Cara was careful to avoid any eye contact and immediately switched side when they approached. She had the growing feeling she was being watched and even examined. Cara was certain the old lady had wanted to come closer, to question her. The little boy had smiled. He had mocked her. She wondered if they could tell. She wondered if she was showing any sign. When a family of five came storming out, Cara rushed back to the safety of her cabin.
She had anticipated the stench, the intrusive company and the judgmental breeze but the violent gale, she hadn't foreseen. Killian told her the sea was usually calm this time of year but what did he know?
Cara swayed from side to side, relieved she hadn't accepted Deirdre's homemade pecan cakes with extra whipped cream.
“It can only get worse”, Cara told herself.
“I want to die. Dear Lord, take me with you,” shouted Deirdre.
From the inner pocket of her bag, Cara took out a small porcelain box. Inside she kept little violet flavoured bonbon that Grandma Laoise used to give her. It cured even the worse of nausea. Cara crawled to the corner of her bed, stroke her stomach gently with her hands and closed her eyes.
Cara grew up with her father, his brother, Freddie and Grandma Laoise. They lived in a small town, twenty miles from Belfast. None of them had ever left home. Cara was the first to make such a crossing. Grandma Laoise was long gone but Cara remembered her as a strong and determined woman. She raised two boys on her own and when Cara's mother passed away in childbirth, she had been more than a mother to her. Grandma Laoise worked the land, like her father before her. Everything she needed, she could grow in her garden. Everything she wanted, she could make herself. She had this dignified side to her as if she was waiting for something bigger, something better to come along. Every day she read the newspaper that Freddie brought home, from cover to cover. To Cara, she also read stories every night and brought her along her monthly trip to the doctor.
One day, Grandma Laoise broke her own rules. She crossed the field and went as far as the town's Hall. This day created such commotion in Cara's household, that she still remembers the tears and the bruises on her grandmother's face. She realized, that at the time, she didn't fully understand the meaning of her actions but today, they echoed like a distant warning in her mind.
On a day when the snow was slowly making way for nature to bloom again, Grandma Laoise removed her work boots and put on a cerulean blue suit, no one knew she even had. She tied her hair in a bun and added a rose from her garden in her front pocket. She looked as if she was marrying her only child. In the kitchen, the boys had their speech prepared.
“Mother, please don't do this. I heard they were gathering around the hall. What if you get hurt?”, said Freddie.
“I am stronger than an oak, son,” replied Grandma Laoise.
“ You won't last long against the lot of them. You're better staying here, with us, where you belong,” barked my father.
“If you're this worried, follow me don't you?”
“I want no part of this charade, ”, he added.
“Someone is going to regret this. I hope to god it is not us”, lamented Freddie but Grandma Laoise was already on her way out. She opened the thick metal door that had protected their home for more than five decades and let the cold air in. She was off. Cara's father had forbidden her from going along and so she watched from the kitchen's window as Grandma Laoise walked away, her silhouette slowly disappearing in the green of the field. Her father attempted to boil some water to calm his nerves, to no avail.
“This isn't working”, he grunted. Freddie went back to his newspaper. Every day, Freddie read the newspaper and everyday Freddie wiped his sweaty forehand with his blackened hands and every day, he left the house with an ink mark on his face. It never occurred to him to ever look in the mirror. Freddie was thirty-eight.
Only six at the time, Cara didn't listen to her father and decided to follow her grandmother, at least until the end of the field. From there, she would be able to observe without getting noticed. Freddie was right, three men were stationed on either side of the hall. Cara heard laughter and saw them joking around. One of them got closer and grabbed Grandma Laoise by the arms. He shook her but Grandma Laoise went on and reached the entrance. The other man went on to block the entrance and spit on her face. Blood rushed to Cara's face. If this was a game, she did not understand it. Grandma Laoise backed off and ran to the side of the building. Cara watched as her grandmother washed her face with the cold water from the fountain.
“One down, hundreds more to drill” they cheered before making their way to the side.
Cara ran to help her grandmother. She heard a bang and saw Grandma Laoise disappear through the side window. The men turned around and saw Cara. The tallest one approached her. He kneeled down, smiled and stroked her hair.
“Aren't you Harry's Girl?” the man asked. Cara nodded.
“You're going to grow up to be a good girl, aren't you?” Cara wouldn't. Not according to his standards, anyway. She ran inside the hall.
The entrance had been arranged in the most unusual way. There was a large table with large wooden boxes, one of which was filled with pieces of paper. Man and woman were queueing. Cara recognized the baker's son, who often came to collect vegetables from their garden and the doctor. She waved but he didn't wave back. Cara finally spotted her grandmother. When she reached the table, Grandma Laoise deposited a small piece of paper in the large wooden box.
“Laoise O'Donnell”, Cara heard before rushing to her side. Her eyes were swollen and her cheeks were bruised. The rose of her suit was gone but there was a mighty smile on her face. Hand in and hand, they walked to the exit. Grandma Laoise stopped. It was as if her entire body had frozen. She wouldn't speak and she wouldn't move.
The Ulster Queen whistled. Cara looked through the porthole. Liverpool. She thought of the Beatles and how she had always wanted to see them in person. Another time, perhaps. Cara grabbed her bag and climbed over Deirdre's body, miraculously, still breathing.
“I want to die.”
On the bus, Cara sat all the way in the back. She took out a handkerchief from her pocket and discreetly wiped the sweat from the back of her neck. That crossing wasn't the one she dreaded the most. Soon, she'll be arriving, soon, she'll have to walk across the hyenas. They'll come at her with all they've got. She held on to her bag and looked down at her shoes.
“Liverpool Bedford Clinic, next stop.” Cara's heartbeat accelerated. She peaked out the window and inspected the entrance. It looked empty enough. Where were they hiding? In the trees? Cara got off the bus. She walked slowly, carefully looking to the right and then to the left. The building was dark and dusty. Cara thought of her town's church and its own pointed spire. She was halfway there when she heard them.
“Murderer! Monster! Traitor! Killer! Heartless! Abomination!”
“Traitor” hurt the most. Cara couldn't tell if the water on her face was from her own tears, the rain or them shouting at her. Then came the red paint, that was to represent the blood of all the unborn babies. It ruined the only dress Cara had inherited from her mother but still, Cara said nothing. Inside, she was instructed to wait and sit on the left bench. On the right, where all the women who were not pregnant yet.
The sharp smell of antiseptic burned Cara's noise. It reminded her of the large bleach bottle her young friend, Shawna, had ingested last spring. Shawna has passed all her exams and had finally gotten her degree. Shawna was brave. If only this would have happened a year later, Shawna would still be here, sitting right here with Cara. Cara noticed that only two women sat on the right bench while hers was full. She had barely started to remove the paint from a face when one of the two women stood up.
“You selfish girl. Do you know how lucky you are?” she shouted before storming out.
Cara forced herself to look away but it was too late. Tears started to run down her cheeks. These, she knew, were hers.
“I'm sorry! I'm sorry!” Cara cried out.
“What for?” the other woman replied.
“Is it your first time?”, she asked. Cara nodded. The woman was also in her forties. She had brought a book and a thermos of hot tea. Cara wondered how many time she'd had been here. Looking around the ward, it was filled with women, only women. Where were all the men? At least hers had offered.
“You wouldn't be able to take it”, she had told him. He didn't argue.
A nurse came to collect Cara and brought her to a tiny and cramped office.
“What can we do for you?”
“My name is Cara O'Donnell and I would like to get an abortion”
“Are you sure?”
“Are you very sure?”
“Fill that up for me please.”
Cara undressed and laid down on the table. The nurse's metal tray grazed her feet and sent chills through both her legs. A year ago, Shawna had refused the hook, she had refused the needle and she had refused the stairs. Unreliable, she said. Cara held on to her own hand, breathed in and closed her eyes. Despite it all, Cara told herself, she was in safe hands. She was.
Grandma Laoise wouldn't take another step. A woman tapped on the back of her shoulder. It was Sarah, the seamstress, followed by wives, daughters and sisters. She took Grandma Laoise's hand and they all walked out together. Outside, the three men weren't foolish enough to take on a group of twenty women. In the afternoon, there would be even more.
When Cara opened her eyes, she felt empty and then a little lighter. She stared at the ceiling while the nurse washed her instruments. It was time to get dressed. The red paint on her dress had turned dark, almost black. She took out an oversized sweatshirt from her bag that she layered on top of her mother's dress. The women on the left bench had both gone. The last sound Cara heard before leaving was that of a baby crying. Good for her, Cara told herself. She let every ray of sunshine kiss her porcelain skin. Never once during the procedure, did the nurse ever look up.
At the dock, Cara recognized the smelly little officer. She queued patiently but knew it wouldn't last.
“What is the purpose of your travel?”
“I'm coming home.”
“What were you doing in Liverpool?”
No answer. The officer looked up, grumpy as ever.
“What were you doing in Liverpool?”
Cara could have told the truth but already her stomach was sending violent twinges through her entire body.
“I was visiting a sick relative. She's better now. We sent for a doctor and she had had plenty of rest.”
The officer let her pass, unfazed. Walking up the ramp leading to the ship, Cara's legs and arms shivered. She held on tightly to the railing. She never looked back.
The journey back was worse. Cara was sicker than ever from the anaesthetic and her body rejected what felt like, all she had ever eaten. The smell of gasoline poisoned her lungs and burned her eyes. Crouched on her bed, she brought her legs to her heart and hugged it all. She rocked her body gently from side to side and looked through the porthole. Soon, she will see Belfast, soon it will all be forgotten.
In the night, she woke up, yelling and drenched. She feared her body had drained from all its blood. She could barely feel her legs and feet. She turned on the light. It was only sweat. There was a knock on the door.
“Is everything alright in here?”
They would know. They would guess. They would punish her for her sins. The nurse said this might happen. That's all she said.
“I'm alright here. It was just a nightmare”, Cara replied, shivering.
Cara lifted her weaken body to the sink and soaked her scarf in water. She laid down and put it on her forehead. She counted. There were three minutes between each abdominal contraction. Each time, Cara closed her eyes and clenched her fists.
When Grandma Laoise came back from the polls in 1928, neither Freddie nor Cara's father asked what had happened. They saw the bruises and they saw the ruffled suit but said nothing. The next day, Freddie left the house with a dark grid on his forehead and neither Grandma Laoise nor Cara uttered a word.
The first time Cara voted, she had almost forgotten. She made a silly guess behind the curtain and forgot it all so quick to join her friends. It was the end of the term.
The sea cooled down and so did Cara. The water finally kept to her body and the cramps became lighter and fewer. The Ulster Queen roared for the last time. Belfast. Down on the platform, Cara had never walked so slowly. “Can she go any faster?” yelled out some kid. Her bag was too heavy, she pushed it around.
The early morning was the busiest time of the day a the docks. Ships were arriving and others departing. Families ran for the last call, crossing path with carriages of coal and wood driven by victorious chalky workers. A mother rushed her crying brown haired girl across the railing. Cara whistled and the little girl turned around. She had that look, children have before they burst into tears. Cara prayed the girl's journey would be less draining than hers. She prayed the gale and sickness would only be distant memories.
From a little street vendor on the dock, Cara grabbed an apricot and gobbled three more. The sweet nectar tingled her tongue and diffuse vigour and colour back to her face. She wiggled her toes and stretched out her arms.
“Heh, you! What do you think I am? A charity? Keep some for the others, would you? Can you even pay?” Cara took out a couple coins from her bag and handed them to the fruit vendor.
“I always pay.”
“Belfast Liverpool! Belfast Liverpool!” Cara heard in the distance, on her way back home, to Grandma Laoise's old little town.
1928 - Equal voting rights with men for women in the UK
1967 - Abortion Act 1967 for England, Scotland and Wales
2020 – Extended to Northern Ireland