Christmas Spirit

 

Seven more sleeps till Santa Clause for all children good and bold.  But my mind turns toward Ruth Stoker, will her true story  ever unfold?

Think back to December 1923, what was it like for a girl of fourteen?  All those miles away in Connemara, first term learning the life of a high society.

Was there a wonderful  atmosphere in the Castle, was it decorated there too?  Did a giant Christmas tree reach up to the atrium, baubles and candles glinting through?

castle christmas

 

Were your holiday plans simple?  To get home to your own bed.  Looking forward to time with your sisters and parents, time for  oogling Clearys window instead?  How happy I imagine your mother,  anticipating her baby girl home at last.  Putting aside society etiquette and hugging you fast.   Your father might be busy with his Surgery but no doubt he could fit in time for play ?  He might let you use with his Champion tennis racket, perhaps a family lunch at the club house a plan for one of the days?

fortnum-and-mason-christmas-window

 

How would your house greet you,  Number 23 Westland Row?  Would the lamp lights dance and flicker, beams of yellow all a glow?  Did you imagine a healthy wreath of green and red,  hanging on your front door.  The Georgian hallway full of festive cheer, with  holly and ivy garlands  sweeping the stairway to the floor.  Prisms of light dancing through the leaded glass on the landing, where faires hide with glee.   Had your parents placed any Christmas presents underneath the candle laden tree?

christmas tree

 

But you would never see that Christmas, nor sleep in your own bed once more. Never see Jesus placed in the manger of Saint Andrews  or hear their Christmas Day choir soar.

I  see you instead the week before Christmas, sick in your bed at Kylemore.  Feeling miserable,  weak and afraid, eyes nervoulsy darting toward the door.

caring for tb patient

 

At first, put down to a chest infection and the end of a long school term. The tolls of learning Latin and Music,  and elite school rules that were firm.  When the  infection took hold and got more serious, and scarlet droplets dotted your chin, were  travel plans home delayed and the local doctor called in?  They then treated you  for pneumonia but sure how could the ignorant have known ?  It was not only your life that was threatened, but the Community as a whole.

When did they finally move you, were you isolated, placed in an old Castle room?  Were the rest of the students sent home with an excuse of  Christmas holidays and prayers from Rome.

 

Was it the 17th when  you became too weak,  as the fever set in?  Did the scarlet droplets turn to blobs of betrayal,  as your lungs quickly deteriorated from within?  Modern medicine had yet to be discovered, and superstition and taboo your fate.  Was there a secret hush throughout the Abbey corridors? It is Galloping Consumption  – Alas!  too late.

consumption

 

Who bravily cared and wiped your brow , cleaned the blood from your blue lips?  Did your parents make it in time to your bedside, say their goodbyes, take your dying kiss?

romantic consumption

 

I know not what hour you slipped from this world.  By  the 18th you were gone.  To be buried in the nun’s cemetery, did the nun’s gather in prayer and sing some song?  Did you pass from this world to the next or decide to stay a while?  As they lowered you down into the clay, scattering  lime as was the style.

Who visited your grave to mourn you, who tendered the mound as it slowly sank?  Who placed the hand carved headstone, who do we have to thank?

Ruth Stoker grave stone

I see you  Ruth Stoker of 23 Westland Row, though I never knew you at all.  I can only imagine our friendship, as an original K-Girl.  Do you turn to face  us in Connemara where your spirit resides?  Do you turn to face the sunset beyond Diamond Hill or the Kylemore Lake sunrise?

 

2014-09-11 07.29.32

 

Here is to you Ruth Stoker and all the K-Girl’s besides.  Those, who the week before Christmas have left us, and those over the months and the years of tides .  How many smiles turned to sorrow?  Hearts broken across the miles?

Lay you all not forgotten,

Lay you loved all the while.

Remembering all K-Girls today

and forevermore besides.

candle of light

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Strong Warriors – a Lusitania story

So I was rather chuffed when my historic fiction piece (abridged version) was published last week (Evening Echo Thursday, 7th May 2015) Written back in 2007, it was a originally a 3000 short story that had been written for the Fish Anthology Historic Short Story competition – I was short listed then and didn’t win,  but was pleased with that result.

I pulled it out again this year, wanting to somehow make my own little contribution to mark the Lusitania centenary.  I was delighted that the Evening Echo accepted it – my first ‘freelance’ piece.

Anyway, I know some who missed the feature in the paper, and were interested in reading the story, so I am happy to add it here (with some added images)

It is a fictionalised account, of factual events.

Strong Warriors

By

Lydia Little

Bill Turner brushed the last of his lunch crumbs from his tunic as he stepped from his day cabin onto the crescent shaped bridge, with its broad bright windows, and gleaming array of instruments.  The wheelhouse was filled with a quiet sunlight that streamed through the lazy fog, disturbed only by the comforting rhythm of the ship’s engine and busy clicking from the wireless room.

He inhaled a deep relaxing breath filling his lungs feeling satisfied and content.  He would never tire of watching the bow of the ship stretch out before him, ploughing through the sapphire sea, revealing a continuous petticoat of white bow wave tumble along in her wake.

 

Cpt Bill Turner

Captain Bill Turner

The Captain relished this private time, having had lunch in his day cabin and avoiding small talk with passengers.  Fortunately for him, his staff captain Anderson, a master of diplomacy, was gifted with such pleasantries. Anderson always willing and able to stand in for the Captain’s public engagements when it allowed.

Captain Turner may have lacked the finesse that his employers, Cunard, expected but he was an extremely competent seaman.  He had been at sea since a young lad and had captained ships since early adulthood.  At the ripe age of fifty-nine, he enjoyed this position of authority.  If only for a few days, he was monarch on his own floating kingdom and felt comfortable with her in his charge.

He strolled out on the port side facing land.  Experience told him they were off the Old Head, but he would wait for the fog to clear before taking a bearing to plot their position.  Once done, he would alter course, increase speed, and plan to catch the Mersey tide at Liverpool. 

 The Captain’s mind was drawn to the waters beneath.  He was in a declared danger zone.  Turner knew about the threat of U-boats.  He was acutely aware that were Admiralty to escort the liner, it would only mark the ship as part of a Naval Unit, giving the enemy legitimate excuse to strike.  The Admiralty were powerless.  No, they had to go alone through the Irish Sea. 

Word of Warning

In preparation lookouts were doubled with men in the crow’s nest, on the bridge and a quartermaster on either side.  The engine rooms had been readied to give full speed and highest steam on command.  She could out run any submarine.  No, he was not worried for the ship.  His concern lay in her manpower.  Her weakness lay in the event of an evacuation emergency.  There was a shortage of crew.  Ever since the war began, any decent sailor had already volunteered for service and Turner had to make do with what hands were left.  Officially they had just over the number of hands needed, but that included inexperienced stewards and stokers.  He knew that time had not allowed them the full training necessary to complete all emergency drills. 

 Below decks Kitty toyed with her soup.  Her stomach was still tender and it was only in that day’s calm sailing, that she began to get her sea legs.  Her friend Alice, had finished her lunch and was full of the joys of life.  All a fuss and a bother about how close they were to the Irish coast, yet it would be another day’s sail before they would set foot on land.

Despite her previous late night at the Seaman’s Charities evening, Alice had been up since dawn in the hope of catching first sight of their native coast only to be disappointed by the fog.  She felt a growing impatience with this sickly Kitty. She loved her dearly, but this constant lethargy was irritating.  They were supposed to be enjoying the luxuries on board, returning home on a well-deserved break from years working in New York.  It wasn’t fair that Kitty had to go and get sick and spoil their crossing. 

 Kitty tried another sip of her soup.  She didn’t like traveling.  It didn’t help to hear the talk of war and submarines.  But they were on the fastest ship on the ocean, ‘Greyhound of the Sea’ they called her.   And with lots of Americans on board, the U-boats wouldn’t dare attack.

Anyone for soup

 

Eleven miles off starboard, Pilot Lanz viewed the liner with his binoculars from the conning tower.  The submarine had been sailing for some time on the surface in the thick fog without any sightings and now he had one that he was very pleased about. He alerted the Captain. 

April had not been good for Captain Schwieger.  He had been hoping for some good hunting, especially now with competition among his peers. If Lanz was correct, this target could give him huge kudos.  He gave the order to dive.

Captain Schwieger

Captain Schwieger

The U-20’s ballast tanks drank their fill. Crew rushed to their posts. Watertight hatches slammed, klaxon signaled, valves spun as orders were issued and echoed.  Compressed air hissed, as the big diesels went silent and a gentler whirring of the electric engines took up their cue below the surface.  The u-boat slipped beneath, maintaining periscope depth.  The atmosphere on board was palpable.  Oppressive cramped conditions, the smell of bilge waters, diesel and stale sweat, now a stimulant for war. 

Lurking beneath the surface, the U20 steered a silent stalking course.  Schwieger stayed at the periscope.  With calculating precision he issued his orders. 

There was a shudder and a hiss.  Driven forward by its two tiny propellers, powered by nothing more than compressed air, the armed torpedo and its three hundred pounds of high explosive made its way towards the liner.  Schwieger followed the bubble-track through the water.  A line of death.  He thought of the human life on board the huge vessel.  He took no pleasure from causing their demise.  He was simply acting on duty.  Quietening any foreboding thoughts he focused on the task ahead.

For Irish passengers on board the liner, they made their way to the port side to catch a better glimpse of shore.  Noses raised they drunk deep the scent wafting off their home land. 

 Turner felt rather than heard the dull thud of the impact.  The watch’s warning was still echoing in his head when he felt the ship wince beneath him.  He rushed to starboard.  A cloud of coal dust and smoke filled the air, the deck awash with water and debris. The ship was struck abaft the bridge, lifeboat number five demolished. 

 In the dining rooms beneath, forks paused at gaping mouths.  Kitty and Alice looked at each other unspeaking.  

Then the hull shook from a second explosion.

Everyone felt and heard that one.

Target Strike

 

Orders were issued to head towards shore but the ship was taking on water too fast.  The engines rendered useless from the inrush of water meant the ship’s thirty thousand tons ploughed on ahead.   Quartermaster Johnston fought with the locked wheel.  Gulping in as she went, the ship pulled herself under as she advanced, forcing more and more water into her breached hull.  The Captain was powerless to stop her.  A frantic tapping took up in the wireless room as distress signals were sent using battery power.   Orders were issued to dispatch officers to their lifeboat stations. 

 A new wave of nausea passed through Kitty.  Her eyes darted to the doors and back to Alice.  Both abandoned their place rushing to the door.  Coal dust and smoke filled the air.  There was a numbing sense of unreality as people scurried about, others stood bewildered looking on as chaos swirled around them.  Kitty pulled Alice close out of the way of the confused gathering crowd.  The angle of ship was unnatural.  Already there was a significant list in the deck. 

 Staff Captain Anderson and his officers struggled with the lifeboats.  They could not be launched safely.  The angle of the ship was such that only boats on the starboard side had any hope of being used.  Those on the port side tilted inwards towards the decks, useless.

 Anderson’s eyes scanned the deck and the water below.  Diplomacy was not on the agenda now.  High society manners ditched as some fought and trampled their way towards the lifeboats.  Orders shouted over the din and screaming.  Priority given to women and children but few risked the gaping distance between ship and lifeboats.  Most seemed to prefer the surreal choice of ship to lifeboat. 

A cold reality weighed in on Anderson. 

Kitty and Alice both fumbled with the life jackets given by a stumbling steward.  Kitty helped the transfixed Alice, trying to remain sure-footed as the great ship lost her feeling of solidity.  Thuds and bangs reverberated beneath their feet.  Kitty looked to the railing. The sharply increased list of the ship tipped a lifeboat tumbling passengers into the water; shrieking and struggling, the lifeboat crashed down among them.  Alice looked on in horror and clung silently to Kitty.  Turning to Alice, Kitty took her friend’s face gently in her hands and held her desperate eyes in her own. 

 Time stopped for Alice.  She shut out the chaos around her.  There was a great warmth and comfort in the dark pools of Kitty’s eyes. Alice wished to crawl into them.  Be in a place of quiet and calm.  Kitty was saying something about the ship and no time, and water. Swimming?  She couldn’t.  She thought of the rock pool where the stream tumbled down the valley at home.  That was a happy place.  It would be nice to go again. She could feel the water at her ankles now.  But this was not the waters of home.

 A torrent of the ocean came reaching for them.  Steam and smoke vomited out of her funnels. The ship began her dying lament. Her innards moaned a new death song.  The deck slipped away from beneath them.  Kitty gasped but held on tight to Alice’s jacket. Clumsy in their sodden weight of useless lace and petticoats, breath caught by corseted prisons, the two friends fought to leave the sinking mass behind.  Violently kicking against the pull, they pushed away from the mass of chaos.  They were only two amongst a field of bobbing heads, debris and noise.  Struggling amid the wreckage surrounding them, Kitty pushed herself and Alice forward, away from the liner.   Alice took a terrified glance back over her shoulder.  The ship struggled to stay on the surface.  For a moment the ship paused.  Her bow having found the seabed, her stern in the air, she stopped for a moment.  And then the regal liner gave her last, spitting and hissing to her end.  As if in slow motion, and the deep was not quite prepared to greet her.  A few hesitant moments and she turned slightly and slid away to the depths.  Hers was the last word, as wreckage and remains were expelled to the surface in the last of her death throes, sending a final tidal wave of debris over their heads.

Alice collided with a dead someone and moaned.  It was all she could do.  A battlefield of bodies bobbing off each other surrounded them.  Those who were alive shouting names, shouting for rescue, shouting for life.  Alice clung to Kitty. 

Adrift

 Kitty searched the surface for the lifeboats.  Her eyes scanned the dead and the drowning, those that clung to deck chairs and barrels.  They were a residue of life and death floating with the tide.  With little resistance to the creeping numbness and exhaustion, they drifted along with the current.  With the dip and lull of the waves a collapsible boat came and went into view, they slowly made their way towards her.  Eyes met with those clinging to debris nearby, hungry for survival and rescue.    There was a feeble race toward the lifeboat.  And there it was bumping against them and voices over them, debating room for one or two. Angry ones worried about being swamped, sympathetic ones willing to take on more.  Kitty would not let go of Alice.  And then they were lifted and dragged into the boat.  Kitty tried to close out the shrieks of others left behind.  She felt the jostle and beatings of oars as the rowers hit out at those snatching for life.  Those on board tossed about struggling to stay upright.  And then they were free, abandoning the rest.  

Bill looked on at the retreating lifeboat in torment.  Barely clinging onto a floating chair, his instinct was now about survival. 

This had not been his first shipwreck.  Feeling the cold grip him, he knew that it would not be long and exhaustion would take its toll.

 Some hours later the first of the rescue boats arrived at the scene.  They did not know it yet but Kitty and Alice would return home to Ireland.  Kitty never forgetting.  Alice choosing never to remember.  Not in daylight hours anyway.  It visited her often enough at night. 

 Bill, picked up by a rescue boat, would don his tunic once more for inquiries and official interviews.  He would return to sea but his kingdom was lost, his crown of pride taken from him.

Schwieger had watched the ship’s last moments from his U-boat.  The image of the ship’s name on the stern stealing away from them.

Named after an ancient Roman people.

Strong Warriors

‘Lusitania’

Plot – Story or Grave?

I went on a walk this morning,  took a turn up past the small cemetery that lies on the coastal town of Schull (West Cork, Ireland).   It slopes gently down to the shore, overlooking Schull harbour and the Carbery isles – in turn lying on the edge of the Atlantic.  It is a beautiful spot.  I find it very moving and inspiring.

It set me thinking of plot.

And the pun therein.

Any writer will tell you that every good story has to have a great plot.  And while I like to think that ‘K-Girls’, my book, has one, I have to confess that the whole idea behind writing my series starts with a rather basic, very sad looking plot.

I discovered it at the age of 12, and was struck by it from the get go.  But it would take me the guts of 30 years before I gave it it’s due respect.

Not many know this, but the whole plot behind K-Girls started with the actual plot, that is the grave, of Ruth Stoker who is a 14 year old who is buried at Kylemore Abbey, Connemara, Co. Galway.

For any who have had the pleasure to visit Kylemore, you may remember the lovely walk to the Gothic Church that lies to the east of the Abbey/Castle?  I could say a lot about this cathedral in miniature, but I do not want to waiver from the topic that is, Ruth.  Anyway, under the shade of the Oak trees and watchful eye of Gothic gargoyles is a simple cemetery where in lies the remains of the Benedictine community that have passed on over the years.

In the midst of the simple stone markers for the nuns, there is a small standing celtic stone cross.  It is the maker of Ruth.  It simply states ‘In loving memory of Ruth Stoker who died on 18th December 1923 aged 14 years. RIP’

Ruth Stoker grave stone

When I was a student at Kylemore the myth was that she had died having fallen from the tower (the reason why the Gothic was locked up at the time) , or another, drowned in the lake (explaining why us students were never allowed to swim or boat on the mass of water).  I suppose many girls saw the grave and wondered for a moment, perhaps some didn’t see it at all.  But it struck a chord with me – why was there a girl buried in the nun’s cemetery?  And admittedly, the romantic in me thought how lovely to be buried at Kylemore – imagining that she must have had a great love for the school and her time there.  And that one day, as I have a similar love, that I too might be buried there – or at least some ashes scattered.

Now that I am 44 and married with my own teen girls, I see a different side  – that of the view of a mother  – and try and imagine what it must have been like for the mother of Ruth to have to say good bye to her little girl, and then to witness her being lowered into the ground?  Did the sun shine, setting the church lime stone alight, or did the Connemara rains fall gently dusting people’s umbrellas, or cloche hats and caps.  Was there a good turn out?  How many would have been stood around the small ope and scattered soil into the dark earth on that December day?

As a student at Kylemore, I did not consider a mother’s love, I was too preoccupied with who Ruth was and where had she come from?  How had she truly died?

Perhaps that is where the seed of her spirit was captured within me at the age of 12 and she grew as I did over my years at Kylemore and then, unbeknownst to myself – Ruth came away with me.

It was only the last 7 years that I built up the courage to start writing in earnest and contacted one of the older nuns (Sr Benedict, historian) about Ruth.  While Sr Benedict was not too familiar with Ruth’s background, she went to the retired elders and discovered that Ruth’s story was a foggy one.

A fire in the bursar office in the 50’s (that is a story in its own right) destroyed all student records and so little was remembered of her, only that the retired nuns remembered something about ‘galloping consumption’ and being ‘buried in Kylemore at the request of her parents’.

Oh! – now that put a different perspective on it – galloping consumption? – buried at the request of her parents? What did that mean?  Consumption, I understood was TB but what did galloping?  It did not bode well.  And Ruth buried at the request of her parents? – Where they there after all?  My mind raced with supposing and surmising.

And so curiosity took me down a road of research and censuses – all the while, Ruth stood at my shoulder, and I felt as if she was smiling enjoying the mystery that she had become for me.

Writers will tell you that characters become alive and when writing, they will so often lead us down a plot path that we never designed in the first instance.   I have found this of Ruth.

Ruth Stoker the actual teen who died in Kylemore  has her own story, and one I will gladly share in another post another time – her grave side remains simple and I visit it every time I am back at Kylemore.  I place a stone on the cross to mark my return, (some think this is a Jewish custom but it’s origins are pagan – the stone symbolising the permanence of memory)

It is nice to see that a other stones have been placed by mine.

But the Ruth of K-Girls, the one that lives in my head and manifests as a ghost in my writing, well she is having a ball within the pages that is K-Girls with  her new mortal friend, Alice.  Ruth is getting to live her teen life all over again – albeit in the 80’s  – and as Alice has a whole 6 years to go as a student of Kylemore.

The two of them will  have a lot of fun with plot;

and sometimes even losing it every now and then.