Nineteen-year-old Nellie Murphy had just finished her porridge and cup of tea when she felt a terrific urge to be near the sea. She made a sandwich and decided to take a walk to Sandymount Strand 'I must wash my hair before I set off ' she said to herself as she sat by the blazing fire with its kettle of perpetually boiling water. Nellie washed her hair and toweled it dry. She put on her best hat, the green one that matched her eyes and grabbed her brown wool coat from the back of the door and headed out.
`Where are you off to?' her mother Biddy asked.
`I fancy taking a walk to Sandymount Strand and back,' Nellie replied.
`Mind you don't catch your death of cold and it nearly November,' her mother called after her.
Nellie set off, her damp wavy hair cascading down her back, the green hat tilted at a respectable angle. She buttoned up her coat against the chill October day. She made her way through Eblana Villas and Ringsend to Sandymount. When she reached the Strand she took off her high-button boots and walked barefoot in the sand. Her mother would kill her if she knew.
The sea air made her ravenous so she ate her sardine sandwich right away and sat on the sea wall watching the sun battle the rain-laden clouds. It looked like the sun might win out and she was there to witness and enjoy every minute of it. She felt so lonely all of a sudden. She rummaged through her purse till she found the small oval photograph. It showed a handsome young man in uniform and was signed 'To my darling Nellie'.
She wondered why she hadn't received any letters from him lately. He'd told her he loved her and would take care of her.
A fine mist rose off Dublin Bay and she felt a chill run through her. Someone just walked on my grave she said to herself. Perhaps it was time to head home. The sun would be going down soon and then the cold would really set in. It was only a mile to walk but she wished she'd asked her mother for a halfpenny to catch the tram back to Mount Street.
She walked along the Grand Canal past Boland's bakery. Jesus, she was starving. It was Halloween, a day for special treats like barm brack and curly kale, pancakes with sugar and lemon juice, her favorite. The children were already on the streets, their faces blackened with soot.
`Help the Halloween party' they begged
`Help the Halloween party yourselves' she shouted back
It was Samhain, the night the veil between worlds is thinnest and the souls of the departed roam the earth. Terrible things had been seen in the lane where she lived. Someone had seen a huge ball of fire roll down the street and she herself had heard the clippity-clop of the headless horseman many a Halloween night.
`Jesus, Mary and Joseph, where have you been all this time' her mother greeted her when she arrived home. 'You should be saving all your energy to push that baby of yours out. You must be famished. Sit down and eat.'
In the middle of the meal, Nellie felt herself sitting in a pool of warm water on the chair.
`It's your time, daughter,' her mother said gently and shouted upstairs for Mrs. Kavanagh in the top tenement. The big iron tub was brought in from the back yard and extra kettles of water were set boiling on the fire. A couple of the neighborhood women, midwives in their own right, were sent for and Nellie moaned as the contractions started in earnest.
Nellie lost all sense of time till she heard the muffled chimes of the clock strike midnight as she cried out in the agony of the final push.
`You have the loveliest baby girl,' she heard one of the women say.
`God help the two of them,' her mother whispered under her breath.
It was October 1919 and in every European port there were girls left holding fatherless babies. It was not exclusive to my family – it was another of the tragedies of wartime. Fathers died in the war, others never intended to be fathers in the first place.