Colette stirred in what felt like an amphitheater. Tied to what must have been a hospital gurney, she saw images on screens. In one scene a very young Michael Caine in his 1966 movie role of “Alfie” sounded off in his best Cockney accent about how badly the world was treating him. It was blimey this, and blimey that, and you bloody well get what you ask for. He was the master of ceremonies, an omniscient cagey gent who could coax any number of lovers into his Morris Minor to take them for a roll in the hay at Shepherd’s Bush.
She heard Alfie chatting. He was excited, dropping “you know what I mean, love” in sentences that ran together in musical incoherence. He pointed to a black curtain. She heard noises coming from behind it. A doctor and several nurses appeared. They displayed tools and instruments, as if they were working at a construction site, showing off what was hanging from their carpenter belts. She heard screaming from behind the curtain and felt a sucking sound at the center of her being. She couldn’t make out what she was hearing. Was it the sound of a baby crying? God knows, something had to give.
Colette Maria McGovern felt as if she were down some dark well in Western Ireland, filled with the smell of death and the sobbing of children. She saw a craggy face of a nun who covered the well opening with her scowl. This was the Sister Anne of her youth, with bad breath and throbbing jowls, who was meant to breathe the fear of God into her. Colette heard shushing sounds and couldn’t tell if it was the nun, the wind, or the voice of God.
Then, written on an old classroom blackboard located in County Galway, Ireland, were the words Bon Secours Sisters. Colette saw nuns and read succor as help, but felt helpless because a line of ropes marked off places for the saved and the damned, directional arrows and all. The Shepherd’s Bush crowd, plump with illegitimate children, walked toward distant huts and cottages, just beyond the tree line, beyond the human touch. Dead children would surely be tossed down the well without prayers or remorse in response to some ancient curse.
She was back in the dark well, listening to voices in Latin and Gaelic, speaking about the wishes of Holy Mother the Church, while women wept because their pelvic bones were severed with surgical saws, making a blessed, endless, theologically correct birth canal that delivered righteous souls. The wailing she heard was in a foreign tongue, though vaguely similar to Latin prayers from her childhood, as if other places also wept for this monstrosity.
Colette was still tied to a gurney inside a sanctuary. Now she had a fuller view of an altar, which looked like it had been prepared for Lent with a purple altar cloth. The surrounding statues were also covered in the color of the Passion. She wanted to roll that word around in her head, comparing it to the smaller case “p,” but the weight she felt against her was historical. The capital remained out of reach.
Everything seemed quiet, holy and restrained, waiting for the Resurrection. Colette daydreamed about the poor souls who would not have that chance. She felt no mercy in her heart.
She saw herself rising from the gurney and moving through the air, as if she had wings, level with the statues. She removed the purple garments from the icons and watched the coverings drop to the floor as from a body. Colette was in familiar territory now with images of Jesus, Mary and Joseph.
She paused in her reverie, reflecting on the cost of this passage and whether venial or mortal terms would apply. She lingered for a while in a gated, ill-defined place called Limbo, reaching back for all the children who had been discarded in plumbing and in septic tanks. She vaguely recalled that some Vatican committee had announced that Limbo for the unbaptized who died in infancy had been closed down, just like that. She thought that this announcement was as casual as a memo announcing St. Peter’s in Rome was closed for a cleaning. She had lost track of who was writing the rules.
Colette stared at the black screen, halfway expecting Alfie to show up, stage left. She was drained, body and soul. The doctor and nurses had left her room. She could feel the emptiness in her uterus. The nurse said she was feverish and talking a lot. The well with hundreds of dead babies was damp and deep.
Colette imagined she was with the damned and discarded babies in the deep throwaway well in County Galway that was still giving up the dead to this very day under the wrathful eye of the Church.