‘What’s that?’ said Sam, pointing to the letter on the floor. ‘It looks like you were reading it before I came home.’
Nana glanced down. She seemed to pause for a moment before picking the pages up. ‘It’s a letter, darling.’
‘Who is it from?’
‘I’m not sure. I found it in Grandad’s paperwork.’ She eased herself out of her chair.
‘It looks interesting. Can I see it?’ said Sam.
Nana hesitated, glancing down at the pages in her hand, then passed them across.
‘Are you okay, Nana?’ said Sam.
‘Fine darling, just tired,’ replied Nana, walking away. ‘Nature calls. Back in a min.’
Sam carefully smoothed out the two thin pieces of yellowing paper. They were both covered with perfectly spaced lines of neat and purposeful handwriting in black ink; the date at the top read 12 September 1956.
I am fearful that I have not heard from you. All my anxieties have been confirmed. I am three months pregnant. It is too late for anything to be done; it is God’s will that our baby be born.
‘I think I’m going to have to go to bed, darling,’ said Nana, returning to the room and snapping Sam back into the present. ‘Emma looks so peaceful on the sofa; shall we leave her there?’
Sam glanced at her sleeping daughter and then back at the letter. ‘It’s from a young girl to her lover, telling him she’s pregnant. She sounds really frightened.’ Nana began tidying up around her. ‘Why would Grandad have a letter like this?’
‘I don’t know, Sam. It was probably in one of the bits of antique furniture from his shop.’
Sam turned carefully to the second page and read the signature at the end. ‘Are there any more letters from this girl Ivy, do you know?’ she asked.“She sounds heartbroken. She’s pleading for this person, whoever he is, to come back and marry her.”
Nana paused for a minute, then turned away. ‘I’m not sure, possibly.’ She went out to the kitchen, and Sam heard the clatter of plates in the sink.
She continued to read. ‘This poor girl, it sounds like her family are furious. They’re planning to send her away to a place called St Margaret’s to have her baby. I didn’t know that happened here, did you? I thought it was just in Ireland. She sounds heartbroken. She’s pleading for this person, whoever he is, to come back and marry her.’
‘The fifties wasn’t a good time to be an unmarried mother,’ said Nana, sighing heavily. ‘I must go to bed now, darling, sorry.’
‘You don’t think it was a letter to Grandad? I mean, obviously from before he met you?’
Nana glared at her. ‘No, Samantha, I don’t. Could I please not be interrogated about this now?’
Sam felt her cheeks flush red, ‘Of course. I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to say that. I’ve got my work head on. I’m really sorry, Nana.’
‘It’s okay, darling, I’m just shattered. Grandad owned that antique shop for most of his life, you know, and he was always finding trinkets and letters from other people’s lives stuffed in the drawers of desks and dressing tables; they were insights into people’s lives that we pored over for hours sometimes. I was just missing him a lot today, so I buried myself in his paraphernalia.’
‘Of course. I’m sorry again for working late and you having to look after Emma, and missing your birthday and having to stay with you . . . I’m just sorry for being born, basically.’
‘Well, I’m not, I’d be lost without you.’ Nana kissed both Sam and Emma, then disappeared down the corridor.
Sam picked Emma up and carried her into her room. She lowered her into the little bed and switched on the night light. ‘I love you,’ she whispered, before creeping out as quietly as possible.
Back in the living room, she fired up her laptop and brought up Google, typing in ‘St Margaret’s baby home Sussex’. A black-and-white picture of a Victorian Gothic mansion appeared on the screen. She examined the image for a while, noting two nuns in full habit in the grounds. The caption under the photograph read: St Margaret’s Convent for unmarried mothers, Preston, January 1969.
As she read the history of the mother-and-baby home, and stories of women who over the years had tried to trace babies they were forced to give up for adoption, she found herself shocked to the core. Infertile couples, it seemed, had had nowhere to turn before IVF and were willing to pay a lot of money for a baby right up until the mid seventies, when St Margaret’s closed its doors.
She thought of Emma curled up peacefully in the next room. The idea of anyone taking her by force seemed impossible. But as she pored over Ivy’s letter and the accounts of dozens of women, it became clear to her that if she herself had fallen pregnant in 1956, as an unmarried woman she would have been thrown out on the street by her family, and St Margaret’s would have been her only option.
She carried on scrolling through the results, and realised that the same headline kept reappearing. In the end, she gave it her full attention. MISSING PRIEST’S REMAINS FOUND ON BUILDING SITE OF FORMER MOTHER-AND-BABY HOME. She scanned the article, which had appeared in The Times just the previous week. Court finds on Father Benjamin’s death in derelict Victorian manor.
Intrigued, she went back to the letter.
Dr Jacobson is going to speak to Father Benjamin at church on Sunday about sending me away soon. I think it will be a matter of days before it is decided. I do not know what to think or do. Please, my darling, I beg of you, I will make you happy and we will be a family. Please come for me quickly. I’m frightened for the future.
‘Father Benjamin,’ Sam said out loud, glancing back up to the article on her screen. She checked the byline and picked up her mobile.
‘Hey, Carl, it’s Sam. You on lates this week?’ She could hear the late-shifters at work down the line, and the vague sound of Murray shouting in the background. No one could rest until the nationals were finally put to bed or Murray lost his voice – whichever happened first.“Do you know who covered the inquest last week of a priest from Preston in Sussex called Father Benjamin? Went missing in 2000 and his remains were found in 2016 on a building site.”
‘Do you know who covered the inquest last week of a priest from Preston in Sussex called Father Benjamin? Went missing in 2000 and his remains were found in 2016 on a building site.’ She poured herself more tea and curled her legs underneath her.
Carl was shouting to be heard over the clatter of night cleaners in the office. ‘Give me a minute and I’ll bring it up. Father Benjamin . . . rings a bell . . . Okay, here we go. Kevin covered it, it made all the nationals. Priest died at the site of a disused convent, St Margaret’s. Verdict: accidental death. Slade Homes are pulling the place down and turning it into a posh development, but the inquest held it all up. Slade must have been pissed because I saw a local news feature saying it’s already taken well over a decade to get the graveyard moved and planning through.’
‘I wonder what Father Benjamin was doing there. What happened to him?’ said Sam.
‘No idea. I remember Kevin was more interested in the fact that Kitty Cannon was at the inquest.’
‘Who?’ Sam could barely hear him over the sound of the vacuum cleaner.
‘You know, Kitty Cannon, the talk show host.’
‘You’re kidding me.’ Sam sat up.
‘Yeah. Upset, apparently; she snuck out before the verdict.’
‘Why the hell was Kitty Cannon at the inquest of an elderly priest from Preston?’ Sam walked over to the window to get better reception on her phone, her heart beating faster. If she could get an exclusive with someone as high-profile as Kitty Cannon, it might be enough to get her through the door at one of the nationals. She’d been treading the carpets at Southern News for too long. Since Emma had been born, she hadn’t been able to put in the sort of hours she had in the past, and Murray seemed determined to keep her down. She still pulled blinders on nearly every story she was given, just as she had done with Jane Connors that day, but she was constantly overlooked for promotion. She needed to start earning some decent money; much as she loved Nana, she and Emma desperately needed to find a place of their own. She knew Murray had a day of dull stories lined up for her tomorrow, but her shift didn’t start until ten, and she was pretty sure she could have a dig into Kitty Cannon and St Margaret’s in her own time.
‘Not a clue. Kevin spoke to Murray about it – he thought there might be a story there – but he didn’t get any pictures, and Cannon’s office said it wasn’t her. That was the end of that.’
‘So he just dropped it? That’s weird. Did she know this Father Benjamin?’ Sam pulled her notebook from her bag and began scribbling.
‘I’ve no idea. It’s not really in the public interest, Sam. She wasn’t doing anything illegal, so there were no grounds to pursue it.’
‘But . . . Is Kevin there? Can I talk to him?’
‘Nope, he was on earlies. Look, sorry, Murray’s shouting at me. Gotta go.’
‘Okay, thanks,’ said Sam to the silent phone.
She glanced over to the article on her laptop screen, then turned to a fresh page in her notebook and wrote Father Benjamin on the first line.
Then she picked up the letter in her lap and started reading again.