Just out of curiosity, when I was working in London that summer, I got an A-Z and figured out how to get to where she lived. I'd had the address for ages. When I saw it first, I got all excited by "College Mansions, West Hampstead." I thought it meant she was rich and stories started exploding in my head about her, but by the time I went looking for her I was sharp enough to know that West Hampstead meant Kilburn, and that Kilburn was where the Paddies lived.
There was a chip shop across the road from College Mansions and I went there for my tea one day and watched who went in and out. There were sixteen postboxes in the hall, and J Bracken was on No 8. There was only room for one name, and if she was married, it would be her husband's, so I knew she was single.
Some couples went in while I watched, a young fellow in a suit with a girl who looked like a hairdresser, and a fat, foreign-looking woman with two heavy bags with green vegetables and bananas and stuff spilling out of them. She was with a dark man who wasn't carrying anything. There were a handful of men, too, not old. If they just had a newspaper in their hand, their wife was probably inside, with their dinner ready; if they had a bag of shopping, you could see they were going to cook for themselves.
Whenever it was a woman by herself, my heart would give a little jump. The first one had hair as dark as mine, and was wearing a long orange dress, but as she came nearer I could see by her big black eyes that she was foreign, so I relaxed.
From where I was sitting, I could see down the road to the Tube station. A woman came out of the station and headed up the road and I was certain sure. She walked like an Irish person, planting her feet down as if they were too heavy for her. As she came closer, I could see she was too old and, in any case, she went past College Mansions.
When I looked back down the road again, a woman was half-way up, coming towards me. I thought she was English. She was wearing a black suit with a heavy brooch pinned to the lapel of the jacket and shiny, black, high-heeled shoes. She walked with quick, short steps, and she had a black handbag over her arm, the way the Queen carries hers. As she came nearer, my heart started thumping. The way her hair sprang back from her forehead was familiar to me from looking in the mirror, and I knew she was my mother.
After that, she was with me every day like a toothache. I'd never felt that way before, because of the nuns. People don't believe me when I say it, but I know they loved us. Sister Joseph used to go around the dormitory every night when we were in bed and give each one of us a kiss on the forehead. Even now I love the smell of clean starched linen, the smell of nuns. I suppose I was a bit of a pet to them because I did well at school. So I didn't miss having a mother of my own. But all the same, seeing her pass and go in the door of College Mansions, I was thinking "That woman's arms held me when I was a baby". Sometimes, just before I fell asleep at night, I'd see myself sitting at her kitchen table in College Mansions, while she poured tea into a flowery mug for me.
I was living in Streatham. What happened was, when I turned 16, the nuns looked around for a job for me at home, but the only jobs were in service and they wanted more for me. This girl who had been a few years ahead of me in the convent was in London and was doing well, with an office job and a flat, so the nuns wrote to her and asked if she would look after me till I got settled. Dolores was happy enough, because she knew that when you leave the convent they give you a month's rent and a month's deposit, and enough to live on for six weeks.
I thought it was a great adventure. The nuns gave me sandwiches for the journey and I had them eaten before we got to Kildare. I got off the train at Euston as if I was walking in my sleep and a fellow asked if he could carry my suitcase for me. He was a fireman. He showed me where to get the Tube and he asked me to meet him at Euston at six the next evening. I told him I would, but I'd no intention. The nuns warned us.
I think the nuns thought Dolores and I would be sitting in her flat in the evenings drinking tea, and shopping for potatoes and cabbage together on the High Street on Saturday mornings. Dolores was hardly ever there, except to sleep. She was working in a bookie's and she had a boyfriend called Jason who I never met. He had a yellow car and he used to sit in it and toot the horn to tell Dolores he was outside. She would come in from work and be washed, changed and gone, slamming the car door fifteen minutes later. Her place wasn't even a flat, it was just a room with a single bed and a daybed by the window that I slept on. There was a kitchen that everyone shared, but they all just cooked their food and took it back to their rooms.
I got a job in a laundrette. I thought it would be nice clean work but you'd be surprised how many people don't know how to wash clothes. In all the time I worked there I never felt clean. There was black under my fingernails and I left a dirty mark on everything I touched. I wondered was I using the wrong soap, but it was just London. I used to think of the nuns' hands. You've never seen anything as clean as a nun's hands. And I thought of the woman whose hands had washed me and fed me and dressed me till I was six months old.
In early September, I got a letter from the nuns. There was a clerical position coming up in Kilkenny and they thought they could pull strings for me. That evening was very hot and I lay on my bed with the window open. The radio was on but after a while I turned it off and just listened to other people's noise, couples arguing in their rooms and people shouting in foreign languages in the street. It seemed strange to me that the woman who used to know every inch of my body didn't know that I was breathing the same hot, dusty air as she was.
I wrote her a letter. I posted it the Friday after I heard from the nuns and she didn't write back for a whole week. She said that she had been expecting to hear from me. She asked me to meet her for lunch in a place in Holborn, near where she worked, the following Thursday. I had promised the nuns I'd start for home that Friday night. I hoped there'd be enough time for all she wanted to tell me.
I finished work on the Wednesday. I didn't tell Dolores I was meeting my mother. She was going away for the weekend with Jason, so she said goodbye before she left for work on the Thursday morning. I said to her, "You never know, I might be back knocking on your door some day soon," and she laughed and said "No way! You'll marry a fat farmer in Kilkenny and the next I hear of you, you'll have a rake of kids and chickens and a house to look after."
That morning I went walking around Streatham because it was too early to start getting ready. I was thinking about what to wear at the same time as I was watching women walking children to school, or in the butcher's buying meat for dinner. I kept thinking, "By the time those kids come out of school, by the time that meat is cooked, I'll have met my mother." When I went back, everyone was gone and the whole house was quiet. I went into the bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror. I looked at my face, into my eyes. I suppose I was thinking that there must have been something about me that, years ago, made me easy to leave.
I was still thinking about what to wear. Even though by then I had some nice clothes, nothing looked right. Everything I put on seemed to be saying too much about me. When there was nothing left in my side of the wardrobe, I felt myself beginning to get panicky and I opened the door on Dolores' side.
Buying my ticket in the Tube station, I could see myself reflected in the glass. I was wearing a pink dress and a grey jacket and sandals that were a little bit too small for me. I smiled at the man, not as if I was Dolores, but as if I wasn't me.
I was there before her. I was going to order a cup of coffee, but I thought my hands might shake and I'd spill it, so I just asked for a glass of water. When the girl brought it, I nearly told her I was waiting for my mother, but I didn't.
When she came in, I stood up, so she knew it was me, and she came over. I said my name and she said hers and we shook hands. I really wanted to just look at her for a while but she started talking, the way English people do, "Well this is very nice did you come here on the bus I'm sorry I was late something came up at the office and I couldn't get away sooner." I didn't say anything so she stopped and looked at me and started again.
"You don't look like I expected," she said.
I said, "What did you expect me to look like?"
"I thought you'd look more like me when I was your age. You're bigger and stronger and you're only sixteen-and-a-half. You're a grown woman," she said, looking at me sitting there in Dolores' clothes.
The girl came round then and she ordered a sandwich and a coffee. Listening to her talking to the waitress, you would swear she was English, but after she said, "Let me explain to you my situation at that time", you could hear the Irish in her voice. Seemingly, when she was 18 she was very pretty and she met this fellow and she got pregnant.
She said "I found I was pregnant," as if she didn't know what caused it. They were going to get married, and he went off to London to find work and somewhere for them to live and didn't come back. She couldn't stay at home and she went to Dublin and had me in Cabra, in a place where nuns used to look after unmarried mothers. Most of the other girls had their babies adopted right away, but she wouldn't sign the papers, no matter what the nuns said.
"I was young and romantic," she said, "and I thought my situation was different. I wouldn't sign because I thought James would come back. I thought we would get married," she said.
I was waiting for the next bit of the story, for her to tell me how I had ended up in the orphanage, but just then, a man going past stopped at our table and put his hand on her shoulder.
"Julia," he said, "Don't spend too long gossiping over lunch. I'm going to need those figures I asked you for before my two o'clock meeting."
She went all English again, "Of course, Mr Wilson, no problem, Mr Wilson, I'm just leaving, Mr Wilson."
Then he smiled at me and she said, "Oh excuse me, Mr Wilson, I should have introduced you. This is my sister, over on holiday from Ireland."
I stood up. "I'm not your sister," I said in a loud voice. "You're my mother," I said. I saw the embarrassment in her face as she looked up at Mr Wilson, and I walked out.
That was Thursday. I went back to Dolores' place, took off her clothes and lay down on my bed in my underwear.
About eight o'clock that evening, I got up, washed my face and started packing up my stuff. If I got to Euston early on Friday morning, I could travel through the day and be back home in Kilkenny that night.
Alice Redmond was born in Dublin and has lived in Canada and the US.
She works in community development and lives in Dublin. This is her first published fiction.