Letters of Freedom
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Carmel, a forty-year-old Irish woman, is living a life that’s fine, not exciting or awful, just fine. She has a house, a husband, it’s all ok. She never had kids, but that’s just life, right? She knows she should be grateful. She’s better off than a lot of people.
Then one day, out of the blue, she gets a Facebook message from a total stranger. With the information that could transform her life, for better or for much worse. It could be a scam. It could be malicious. It could be a crazy person.
But what if what they say is true?
Her finger hovers over the screen. Delete or reply?
Release date: January 29, 2016
Print pages: 342
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Letters of Freedom
LETTERS OF FREEDOM – THE CARMEL SHEEHAN STORY – BOOK 1
Carmel dusted the mantelpiece with the ridiculous-looking purple feather duster Bill’s twin daughters gave her for Christmas. Who on earth gave someone a duster as a gift she’d wondered at the time and she was none the wiser now. If they were little children maybe, she thought maybe it could be explained, but that wasn’t the case.
And while she wasn’t materialistic at all, even she had to admit that one cheap plastic duster from the discount shop between two grown women was stingy. She’d never had a gift, not a proper one, ever chosen for her. To get something from someone, just once, that said, I saw this and thought of you, would be lovely. Maybe Sinead and Niamh saw a plastic duster with bright purple feathers and thought of her. She didn’t know which was a worse idea, that it was a thoughtless gift, or that they actually thought of her when they were in the home cleaning section of Dealz.
They got her a blue scarf for her birthday each year. And Bill gave her twenty euro. No to my darling wife card, not even a brown envelope, just a grubby twenty euro note. Still, she thought at least they marked it. It was better than nothing.
Growing up in Trinity House, birthdays were avoided, it was a thorny subject with some children knowing their stories and others not, so all birthdays were ignored. It seemed to be the fairest thing. She knew her birthday, the twenty first of August, it was written on her birth certificate, so at least she had that. Not much else mind you, but she fared better than some of the others. At Christmas they each got a stocking, with some treats, but everyone got the same so there would be no arguing. It was one of the many things she used to fantasize about as a kid, that someone would buy her a gift, just for her. Based on her own likes or interests.
And she’d foolishly thought that if only she had a family then it would be a given. It was what families did wasn’t it? At least on television that’s how it seemed. But that, like almost all of her assumptions about family life were completely wrong. Despite never getting anything that she’d like from Bill or the twins, she’d scoured the shops each year on their birthdays and again at Christmas, for something meaningful for each of them, though the girls had everything any woman could ever want, and Bill had no hobbies and didn’t care about clothes, so it was hard to come up with anything unique. It didn’t matter anyway, they barely looked at the carefully wrapped presents she placed beneath the Christmas tree. All the girls wanted was the substantial cheque from their father. Handed over in a brown envelope, like a bribe to a shady politician Carmel always thought. They kissed his cheek and pocketed the cheque and that was that. A few months into the new year they usually got a new car, or a new kitchen or something, and Carmel knew Bill had funded it. Every Christmas now she’d learned the best thing to do was to buy Bill a jumper in Twomey’s menswear in the town. Brown usually or some variation on brown. The early years when she’d tried to give him other things had just been excruciating. Nice shirts wrapped with bows, or socks with funny slogans, or after shave. He had no idea how to give or receive a gift and it left everyone feeling awkward. Not even she could get excited about a brown v necked jumper, so it suited everyone. While she got the cash on her birthday, seventeen of them now spent in this house, at Christmas he usually got Julia to buy her a modest voucher for Mullin’s Electrical in town. It sold some homewares too, so he probably assumed she’d get a few cushions or something. He never asked what she got with the voucher and she never said.
As Bill handed over his hard-earned money each Christmas morning after mass and before dinner to his grasping daughters, his expression came as close to pleased as she would see again for another twelve months. She wondered how that cold, loveless gesture of handing over a cheque in an envelope, could make him happy, but it seemed to. Well not happy exactly, that was an emotion very far from his repertoire of feelings, but pleased, proud maybe. It was impossible to know. Like everything else about her husband, how he felt was a total mystery.
She knelt down to dust the fireplace. The range in the kitchen was always lit and this fireplace was only used on special occasions, to date there had been two. They’d had a station, when Father Linehan said mass in the house and everyone from their part of the parish came, and the night Niamh got engaged to Killian and his parents came over for a glass of sherry.
The station had been under extreme duress, but it was their turn and eventually it had become too embarrassing to refuse to host it. Julia had been thrilled when Bill finally succumbed to the none too subtle hints of the parish priest and had gone into full hostess mode. Carmel was sidelined completely.
The engagement night was toe-curlingly embarrassing as Killian’s parents stood there, saying nothing and Bill found successive excuses to go out to the farm. Killian did his best, but his father was another version of Bill and his mother was a tiny bird like woman who looked permanently startled.
She stood up and stretched her back catching a glimpse of herself in the mirror over the fireplace. Given by some aunt of Gretta’s as a wedding gift years ago. It was oval in shape and had some odd-looking bits of white curly metal all around the outside. It was an ugly thing and had become spotted with age but like everything else, it had to stay exactly where she put it. Carmel once dared to suggest that the awful orange and brown wallpaper in the living room be removed and the whole place painted a nice bright pastel, and Bill’s face told her all she needed to know about that suggestion. The entire house was not just a shrine to Gretta, but a study in the seventies. Lots of orange and brown, Formica, beauty board, a swirly pattern carpet, a corduroy three-piece suite in a dull green. It was like a time warp. Funnily enough Carmel felt no ill-will towards her predecessor. It was probably quite fashionable décor back in the day, and some of her clothes, still hanging in the wardrobe upstairs were actually very stylish.
Carmel tucked a stary brown hair behind her ear, it had come loose from her ponytail. She was probably too old for long hair anyway, perhaps Julia was right, it would be better short, but she’d lost her nerve after making the appointment, and came home again, her shoulder length mousy brown hair untouched.
She’d scrubbed the oven earlier and there was a smudge on her cheek that she wiped with the hem of her apron, pausing to look herself in the face. She didn’t generally spend too much time looking at herself. Vanity was frowned upon in Trinity House, as was seeking ‘notice’ or having ‘notions’. Blend in, don’t have ideas above your station, tread lightly on the earth, speak quietly and rarely, that was the message they got. The spotlight was not for children like her, with no past and no future. Try not to take up too much space, that was meant for other people.
She’d managed that much at least. She did blend in. Forgettable was how she looked, she decided. Not awful looking, not pretty either, just a middle-aged woman, medium height, medium build. Nondescript. The kind of person they used in those crime reconstructions on the television. She’d be an ideal mugging victim, or the woman behind the main character in the queue at the checkout. A body, but not one anyone would notice. She could imagine the casting agents ‘wanted ordinary looking woman to be a nobody.’ She smiled at the thought. At least she found herself funny, nobody else did, but she amused herself most days with her mad ramblings. She’d learned to live inside her own head almost all of the time.
She came to the photo, just as she did every day. She didn’t dare lift the large Waterford Crystal frame, dusting around it so carefully, afraid she would drop it. Bill and Gretta beamed out at her as they had done every day of her seventeen-year marriage. Her husband was dressed in his best suit standing proudly beside the now deceased Gretta looking so young and innocent in floor-length white lace. The veil on her head looked old-fashioned now, but Carmel was sure it was all the go back when she and Bill got married. They looked so in love, so full of hope. Gretta was really pretty Carmel thought, her big brown eyes were so trusting as she gazed lovingly at Bill, her dark hair curling gently down her back. She reminded Carmel of a picture she’d seen of Gina Lolo Brigida years ago though without the huge breasts.
She remembered years ago there were some young men working on the new shower blocks of Trinity House, and one of them had a magazine and was showing the other men a picture in it. Sister Kevin appeared out of nowhere, catching them ogling the picture and berated them for bringing such filth into the children’s home. She confiscated the magazine as if the crew of builders were errant ten-year-olds with dire warnings that she would be reporting it to the foreman.
Kit, Carmel’s friend had been sent to Sister Kevin later that week for some transgression, impossible to remember which, Kit was always in trouble, but she swiped the magazine from the desk drawer when the nun was called out and she and Kit and few of the others had been astounded to see photographs of very scantily clad women. She never said to Bill of anyone who Gretta reminded him of, but she remembered thinking that Gina Lolo Brigida was one of the most beautiful women she had ever seen in her life. The girls didn’t take after her really, well perhaps a bit, but they lacked their mother’s vulnerable allure.
She frequently caught Bill staring at the photo as he shoveled his dinner wordlessly down his throat every evening after milking. Though he looked nothing like the open faced smiling young man in the picture, his eyes were the same, the pain of his grief was still there. The initial agony he must have felt had dulled to an empty unfillable void, but Carmel knew that Bill missed his first wife every single day of his life since cancer took her away from him and his little girls. Carmel was no substitute, and never would be, no matter how hard she tried.
And she tried so hard in the early years, making nice dinners, keeping the house spotless, she even tried to ‘spice things up in the bedroom’, following to the letter the instructions in Cosmo, but nothing worked. She would take to her grave the look of perplexed horror on Bill’s face that night in the first year of their marriage, when he came upstairs to find the bed scattered with rose petals, candles burning everywhere, and Carmel reclining, in what she hoped was a provocative way, in a new cream silk nightie. He just stood there for a second, looking appalled, and then muttered something about a sick calf in the shed that he needed to check on. By the time he got wordlessly into the bed beside her an hour later, she was in flannel pajamas buttoned all the way up to the neck and all traces of flowers and candles gone. It was never mentioned by either of them again. She burned with shame whenever she thought of it, another failure.
That side of the marriage never existed. She had been dreading it, not having the faintest idea what to expect, and in the first nights she was relieved when he put out the light and simply fell asleep, but as time went on, she knew they should be doing something. But he never seemed to have any interest. He never touched her, even inadvertently. It seemed strange at first to live beside someone, sleep in the same bed as them for so many years to never touch, but now it was second nature. Nothing, never a brush of a hand, a peck on the cheek, let alone anything more intimate. The years passed, and apart from that one mortifying incident with the candles and rose petals, the subject was never raised again.
She fleetingly played with the idea of asking him, once or twice, why he never wanted to do anything, she wondered if she was doing something wrong. She was bewildered as to why on earth he wanted to marry her in the first place, if all he wanted was a housekeeper, he could have employed someone easily enough, but she never had the courage to speak up.
Even the most innocuous of conversations seemed impossible. He didn’t confide in her about anything, he never had, so asking him anything about their marriage, or non-marriage really, would only embarrass them both. She didn’t think it was because of the age difference, even though she was only forty to his fifty-four, it was more that they were totally incompatible. She loved people and chatting, and Bill was so quiet, he rarely spoke to anyone, it wasn’t just her, and when he did his words were economical, delivering information only.
‘The spuds are going to be ready in around ten days, so I’ll have some sent up,’ had been this morning’s only communication. He’d got out of bed on his side, the second the ancient looking alarm clock went off. He’d be up and out milking before she got up. But he returned having attended to the herd, and he’d expect his breakfast. She always woke with the alarm too, it was impossible not to, it was so loud, but they never acknowledged each other. She would have liked one of those clock radios that woke you to some cheerful voice, or a song, but that would have been another of her ludicrous suggestions. Instead, they had the loud tick tick all night and the horrible sound and the little metal hammer battered the bell on top of the brown clock. More brown. She’d never seen a brown alarm clock for sale, even the old-fashioned ones were red, or blue or even pink but no, Bill managed to procure a brown one.
‘Do you think it will be a good crop this year?’ she asked, trying to extend the only conversation with another human, apart from Julia, that she would have all day.
Bill made a sound which she took to mean ‘I don’t know’, and stood up, shrugged on his jacket that smelled of sour milk from the dairy and left for the farm. No ‘have a nice day dear’ or ‘What do you plan to do today, Carmel?’ or even ‘Thanks’ for the creamy porridge, grilled rasher and home baked soda bread he had eaten for breakfast. He saw his role as farmer, and provider, hers as cook and cleaner. And she was sure that to Bill’s way of thinking she should not be thanked for doing her job, any more than she should be thinking him for milking the cows. The nuns had sometimes accused her of having an overly romantic idea about life outside the walls of Trinity House, and she had to concede they were right, life was drudgery, no matter where you lived it.
She wiped a speck of dust from the frame with her thumb. Three decades had passed since the day Bill married Gretta, his dark curly hair was grey now, and the lean young farmhand had become a paunchy middle-aged farmer. But it wasn’t just the time that had changed him. People in the town had said to her that the day Gretta died a bit of Bill died as well. Some people said it to be kind she supposed, to try to explain that his taciturn nature wasn’t her fault. She’d had to listen to how charming he was as a young man, how chatty and genial. It was hard to believe that at least some people were not in some way blaming her for the transformation.
She had no idea what he was like before but for the seventeen long years that she knew him he was undoubtedly the most uncommunicative man in Ireland. His awful sister Julia was the worst for reminiscing about the old Bill. She exclaimed, as often as she could, as loudly as she could, to as many people as she could, how Bill was so much happier before. The before, of course, referred to ‘before Carmel’.
As feelings of bitter hatred for her sister-in-law threatened to rise up within her, Carmel tried to think good thoughts,
‘Challenging interpersonal relationships are a great opportunity to practice your mindfulness,’ she quoted her self-help CD through gritted teeth. Bill never saw her Wayne Dyer or Deepak Chopra books and CDs, she kept them out of sight. Not that he’d say anything, but he’d get that look, the one that spoke volumes, the one that said, ‘Gretta wouldn’t be sucked in by all that hippy nonsense.’
The look of disappointment on Bill’s face was such a regular feature of her life, in fact it was one of the few emotions he expressed perfectly. So, she kept her interest in mindfulness and gratitude and trying to live her best life, to herself. At night she listened through her earphones to Dr Wayne Dyer’s lovely deep voice podcast about drawing positive energy to you, as Bill snored rhythmically beside her. If he saw her, he never once asked what she was listening to. In a way she was glad, it was her thing. Louise Hay, Dr Dyer, and so many others made her feel less alone. The guided meditations, that led her to places of calm, serene, stillness, were the highlight of her day.
She had the internet on her phone, and she was in lots of Facebook groups, people united by the teachings of the new age movement. One in particular she really enjoyed, was set up to discuss the teachings of Dr Dyer. It was based in the UK, and the people on it were so nice and they talked so much about positivity and love and service to mankind, she felt good being around them, even if it was only virtually. Though the ideas discussed were exactly the teachings she’d learned as a child of Jesus Christ, kindness, empathy, compassion, gratitude, love, this way of interpretation of it sat more comfortably than the strict rules and dogma of Catholicism. She’d always felt an inherent threat in the faith of her childhood. Do it the right way or face the fiery pit of hell. So much of the imagery even was terrifying. She recalled a particularly grotesque representation of Jesus’ face on the Shroud of Turin, since debunked of course, that hung over the blackboard in one of the classrooms. Try as she might aged seven or eight, to not look at it, it drew her gaze, and she couldn’t help it. Poor Jesus, with the thorns pushed into his head, it used to make her cry. The saints and statues represented in every corner and wall of Trinity House shared the same expression, profound sadness. She wondered at a faith that rejected joy so universally. The message seemed to be life was a trial of pain and suffering and if you endured it well then when you died you got to go to heaven. But if not, your fate was an eternity of hell. And the opportunities for sin seemed everywhere. Impossible to avoid. Kit used to joke as they came out of confession each Saturday that it might be best if she was hit by the number 78 bus right now, while she was in the clear. Because sure as anything her soul would be filthy black and full of sins again by the morning.
The ridiculousness of little children being terrified of committing sins was obvious to her now at forty but as a child she seemed to spend her whole life trying to avoid sin and failing miserably.
Then she found this new way of thinking. That she wasn’t bad by virtue of just being, that she had a purpose, that God loved her, and that she was a good person just as she was. This was a revelation and she loved it.
She found so many people in this new tribe. They were her only friends and her name on there was CarmelIreland. She’d log in most mornings and instantly someone in the group would send her a smiley face or a wink, or a ‘good morning CarmelIreland!’ post. For the first time in her whole life, she felt welcome and that she belonged. She found herself commenting on posts and revealing more about herself to these strangers than she ever did in real life. Just a week ago a person was saying how sad he was to discover posthumously that the man he thought of as his father wasn’t in fact his natural father at all. The man said he felt betrayed. And hurt that his father could never tell him the truth. Carmel felt compelled to tell her own story, and how being a parent was so much more than biology. That her birth parents had abandoned her in 1971, leaving her nothing but her name, and that she’d never known the love of a mother or father, and so how he should try not to see it as a betrayal, more that in his eyes that man was his father. In every way that mattered. The conversation went on with the original poster asking her about her childhood and it felt nice to talk, even if it was electronically with someone she’d never met.
Whatever about Bill, he didn’t seem to care what she did, she could never let old hatchet-face Julia see what she was up to on Facebook. She’d have her committed to the county home as a nutcase or bring her down to the priest to be exorcised. Mobile phones, computers, any technology past a pop-up toaster was to her mind, the work of the devil. And as for connecting with strangers online, and discussing matters existential with them, well that was surely a most grievous sin. As far as Julia was concerned, there was only one place for faith or spirituality and that was up at mass every Sunday morning, anything else was heresy.
Julia. The thoughts of her gave Carmel a stomachache. Which was ridiculous, she was a grown woman, she should not be afraid of another one, but the truth was that she felt nothing but terror in her sister-in-law’s company.
Carmel always thought of sisters, and by association sisters-in-law, as lovely, benevolent forces for good in a person’s life. As a child, she’d devoured novels where sisters and brothers and cousins solved mysteries or went on adventures, and longed, more than anything, for a family herself, one of her very own. When she married Bill, with nine-year-old twins, Sinead and Niamh, she thought she was getting just that, but from the very first day when Bill brought her to this house, meeting her stepchildren and sister-in-law, Carmel knew something was very wrong. It was not like any book she’d ever read. The children were not timid exactly, more standoffish, like they didn’t want her there, and Julia was openly hostile.
Carmel was not a welcome addition to the sad little household of Bill Sheehan and his lost-looking girls. She never understood Julia, she’d been the one apparently who encouraged her brother to remarry and yet she seemed to hate his new wife on sight.
Julia talked constantly about Gretta, about how nice she was, how kind, how funny, how well- dressed, and when she really wanted to put the boot in, how much Bill and the twins adored her. Carmel knew perfectly well that her husband didn’t love her, he probably didn’t even like her very much, and while she had sadly come to accept that fact, it wasn’t nice to have her nose rubbed in it almost daily when Julia found a reason to ‘pop in’.
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