Katharine Norbury was abandoned as a baby in a Liverpool convent. Raised by loving adoptive parents, she grew into a wanderer, drawn by the landscape of the British countryside. One summer, following the miscarriage of a much-longed-for child, Katharine sets out – accompanied by her nine-year-old daughter, Evie – with the idea of following a river from the sea to its source. The luminously observed landscape provides both a constant and a context to their expeditions. But what begins as a diversion from grief soon evolves into a journey to the source of life itself, when a chance circumstance forces Katharine to the door of the woman who gave her up all those years ago.
The first time I came to this place was by accident. Or rather, the first time that I came here knowingly. I had been to the read-through of a play. I was tired and cramped from being indoors, my eyes sticky from staring at the page. I had longed to walk on a beach. As Liverpool is a port it seemed obvious that if I headed north then sooner or later I would find one. So I had left the writer, the cast and the director, with their curling sandwiches and their vending-machine coffee, and had driven from the City Centre, past the Cunard, East India and Exchange buildings until the seafront gave way to the fragmented, potholed road, cracked and meandering, which ran alongside the docks. My car hugged the walls and fences and the razor-wire security until finally the road opened out, the city became residential again, and I saw a sign: Antony Gormley’s Another Place. And because I had forgotten about wanting to be on a beach, I grew curious, and I followed the signpost, and it brought me here.
Now, I had been adopted as a small child and I knew little of the circumstances of my birth. Mum and Dad had told me that I was conceived as the result of an indiscretion during my mother’s engagement, and that my mother had married her fiancé shortly after I was born. But – and there was always a but – the condition for this gesture, this saving from disgrace, had been the giving up of the evidence, the discarding of the cuckold’s horns. I remembered asking if that meant I was a bastard, as I had been called the name at school, my cheeks more pink with worry over using a bad word before my parents than any possible revelation about what the word might mean, and then Mum saying that ‘illegitimate’ was the proper way of saying it, though I wasn’t, not anymore, because they had adopted me. That was the story that Mum and Dad told me, one night, when I was eleven years old, after I had finally plucked up the courage to ask. We never discussed it again. How, or where, it had all taken place, there was nothing written down, other than the district of my birth, unavoidably preserved on my birth certificate along with the name of my birth mother and a thin blue line, a hyphen, that represented my father.
So on that day I had come to the beach for what I presumed was the first time in my life and found it familiar. In fact I was overwhelmed by the idea – not just that I had been there before – but that I had been born there.
A few years ago salmon were found in the Mersey for the first time in two hundred years. A net was strung across the river mouth, at the place where the river meets the sea, to catch them as they returned to their breeding grounds. Before they stopped coming, when the effluent pouring into the rivers made the water too dirty to sustain them, salmon were common. In The Water-Babies, Charles Kingsley tells of a petition from the children in an English workhouse begging not to be fed salmon more than twice a week. In days gone by this magnificent fish was considered food for the very poor. It still is: Alaskan tinned salmon even now cross the seas to Africa, complete with a book of recipes, the shelf-life of a can, six years.
In addition to being their breeding grounds the high pools to which salmon make their way are also, for the most part, their graves. As the disintegrating bodies of the parent fish fragment and float back towards the sea they sustain the tiny smolts. It is a curiously sacramental death. Birth. Dark there, under the sea, the cool fresh easing towards them, the late spring floods bringing a scent, a peaty memory, diverting them from their diet of prawns. How do they know when to respond? What calls them?
On that day, I’d had a sense. I’d felt a pull, a draw, as though something were listening. I’d felt it in the space around me. It was so strong that I had turned in my tracks, away from the shore and away from the Antony Gormley installation, and walked back, towards the land. Later, I wondered if the cleaning up of the Mersey had contributed to my feelings on that day. I wondered if I was able, finally, to perceive something that until then the dirty water and chemical spill had smothered. Drowned. Or perhaps the time just happened to be right; everything in alignment, a coincidence.
So I had walked towards the children’s playground, the one that had so captivated Evie. There was an ice-cream kiosk, and two ladies waddled towards it along the same boardwalk path, a young girl between them in a green crocheted dress, a matching hat, her eyes wobbling behind thick lenses. Above and behind them hundreds of knots whirred in their two-tone winter plumage. The knots vanished briefly, then reappeared, with the slight tilt of a Venetian blind as their underbellies, which were the colour of the sky, made them momentarily invisible, although the air still crackled with their passing.
‘Excuse me,’ I said, ‘is there a hospital around here?’
‘There used to be,’ said one of the ladies, and pointed through a gap in the sea wall. ‘It’s just up there.’ It was a convent, they told me, and the sisters still lived there, but it wasn’t a hospital any more.
Quite grand, it had been, a sort of private nursing home.
‘I see. Thank you.’
I followed their directions and came to the house. Inside the hallway was a brass plaque dedicated to the Sisters of Mercy, who have cared for the sick in this place for over one hundred years. No longer a hospital, but a guest-house with a reception, which was empty.
There was a bell, which I chose not to ring. Behind the desk there was a door into the main house, with a Yale lock. But it was on the latch. I eased inside.
The house opened around me, and grew larger, or perhaps I grew small in relation to it. There was a rectangular stained-glass window above a staircase; I felt certain that I knew it, that I had seen it before. I found a chapel, and what I took to be a baptismal font although it could have been a holy water stoup. A grille divided the house from the nuns’ residence, and a few aged sisters sat in the pews, white as doves, tucked into prayer. An electric candle stand illuminated a painted metal relief of Our Lady, and I thought of school and Physics, the simple circuits and fairy-light bulbs.
‘Can we help you?’ As I turned and walked back into the hall-way I almost knocked over two of the sisters.
‘Oh! Yes. I’m sorry. There was no one in reception.’ The sisters waited. One of them was about my own age, while the other was ancient, the crown of her veiled head barely reaching the shoulder of the younger nun. I found myself thinking of a pepper-pot.
‘I was wondering if it might be possible that I was born here?’
The nuns seemed unfazed by the question.
‘Yes,’ the younger one replied, ‘it is. In fact, if you were born in a hospital, in this part of Liverpool, then there was nowhere else.
What’s your name?’
‘We can look up your records,’ said the older nun, ‘though I’m sorry that they’re not of the best.’
‘Actually, I was adopted as a child, and my name has been changed, but I know the name on my birth certi cate: Marie Therese’, and I mentioned surname. The two nuns lifted their arms in unison, white puppets acting surrender.
‘Sister Marie Therese!’ they both said. I looked over my shoulder, thought perhaps someone was standing there. There was nobody.
‘Sister Marie Therese?’ I asked.
‘Yes,’ the older sister said, and turned to the younger woman next to her.
‘Could Sister Marie Therese help me?’ I asked.
‘Yes,’ said the older nun.
‘Can I meet her?’
‘No,’ said the younger sister. ‘She’s died, ten years ago. But we know who you are.’
And as we stood in the hallway they told me the story, finishing one another’s sentences, of the midwife who had been left, quite literally, holding the baby and of the mother who had fled the hospital. The younger sister seemed to be as familiar with the details as the older nun who had witnessed them. The midwife’s name was Sister Marie Therese and she had taken charge of me, and looked after me, and kept me until a home could be found for me. ‘She baptised you and she gave you her name.’
Whether this was Sister Marie Therese’s own name, or one that she had taken on entering the Convent, I didn’t think to ask. There was no time for me to register any feelings about the discovery, and loss, in under a minute, of my namesake. The idea, the fact, that I had one.
The sisters were gentle, animated. They seemed to be not at all surprised by what was happening, no matter how unlikely. They took an almost childlike pleasure in the continuance of an interrupted narrative. They showed me the room where I had slept, the cupboard where my nappies were stored, and where the baby food was kept. They showed me the room where I was born, which was now an office. Grey-metal filing drawers belched disorganised paperwork. I noticed a heavy glass paperweight with the three-tiered crown and crossed keys of the papal coat of arms.
A tree filled the window. ‘It would have been here already on the day of your birth. It would have been the first green thing you saw.’
I had got the idea that this must have been a Catholic mother-and-baby home, and presumed my story to be a common one. But no! The sisters were even a little put out by the suggestion. It was a hospital, a private nursing home, just as the ladies on the beach had said it was. Why was I trying to reduce this extraordinary circumstance, to render it commonplace? The sisters would have none of it; I was the only one, Sister Marie Therese’s baby.
There were more sisters now. They didn’t stop what they were doing, the internal pathway of their lives adhering to a proscribed invisible order, but they looked, pausing brie# y in their steps. Word had gone about: ‘Tis Sister Marie Therese’s baby, and she’s come back to us!’ I felt their curious eyes, their kindly faces, those who had joined the Convent in more recent years seemingly as familiar with the story as the older nuns. I had a sensation of being contained within a mechanism. My unveiled hair and dark clothes, which trapped the scent of the outdoors – of wet leaves, of sea, of woodsmoke – seemed brash among the detergent white of their habits. I felt hot, faint. A smell of bleach and polish, which I had noticed on entering, now felt pervasive, oppressive. I asked if there was a garden and yet I didn’t want to be an inconvenience; but the sister who had become my guide said I wasn’t disturbing her. She worked in the local hospice and her working day had ended. I found her at her leisure. A nun’s leisure: I realised how little I knew about the working of this order, any order. But I understood, or thought I did, that she had come here at this moment to be of help. Some of the older nuns were well into their eighties, and it would be getting time to prepare the evening meal. I had the impression that she remained, on the pretext of being social, to share, and thereby lighten, their burden.
She opened a door into a garden, adjuring me to stay as long as I wished. We could have tea, if I liked, when I was finished.
The Fish Ladder is out now from Bloomsbury.