Sunday 18 March 2018

Brompton Oratory

'Forlorn and exhausted, baby/ By the absence of you' ' - Brompton Oratory', Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

Brompton Oratory, London. Photo: Getty
Brompton Oratory, London. Photo: Getty

Chris Fitzpatrick

Although it was not a Sunday or a Holy Day, Kate went to Mass in the Brompton Oratory on the morning after her abortion. She remembered going to Mass there with her parents as a teenager when they had gone on family trips to London, usually to see rugby internationals at Twickenham or the tennis at Wimbledon - more often than not taking in a show in the West End as well.

She had googled the Mass times and directions to the Oratory on her iPhone on the Ryanair flight over to London. She had arranged to fly over the day before the procedure and to stay overnight afterwards, having previously read in one of the newspapers about a woman who had collapsed in an airport departure lounge returning to Dublin 12 hours after an abortion.

Although she could barely afford the costs that she was incurring - medical fees, travel and accommodation expenses - Kate knew that she could not cope with a continuing pregnancy or with a baby. She was living on a knife's edge and had felt close to a nervous breakdown on a number of occasions over the past few months. After a decade of an on-off turbulent relationship with Barry, they had finally separated. He had moved to Dubai with his job, and had finally stopped texting her.

After Kate left him to the airport ("for old times' sake", she said) she returned home and did a pregnancy test. She suspected that she might be pregnant. She did not want to know until Barry was well and truly gone. She certainly did not want him ever to find out. She was still afraid of what he might do.

Kate was grateful to the woman in the credit union who gave her the necessary loan without too many questions. She would need to find a job when she got back to Dublin to help pay it off.

"You seem to have a lot on your plate," her friend Doireann had said to her when they met for a coffee. You don't know the half of it, Kate remembered thinking at the time. She could never tell Doireann, her very best friend from school and college, about the pregnancy or the abortion. Doireann and Paul had spent all their savings on infertility treatments in Dublin, Madrid and Prague. They were now expecting twins - from donor eggs.

Since returning back to Dublin, Doireann had shared with Kate the intimate details of her fertility treatment, including the video images, stored on her phone, of the fertilised eggs dividing under a microscope, in Prague, in preparation for implantation. Prior to this cycle of IVF, Doireann and Paul had explained to Kate that if Prague didn't work out they were seriously considering going down the surrogacy route.

Kate recalled the awkward silence as they both looked intently at her, as she sat across from them at their kitchen table. Kate managed to quickly change the topic of conversation. Kate remembered being overcome with a deep sense of relief when Doireann phoned to tell her that she was pregnant.

Pulling her overnight suitcase behind her, Kate was relieved to find that the Oratory was just about a six-minute walk from South Kensington tube station, just as the website had indicated. As she climbed the flight of steps up to the entrance, stopping to rest her suitcase on each step, Kate recalled her father's expressions of delight whenever the family used to attend Mass there. He was fascinated by the impressive neo-classical facade and the richly decorated interiors of the Oratory. On more than one occasion, she remembered him staying back after Mass to sketch some ornate detail or other in one of the many notebooks he carried around with him, as both Kate and her mother waited impatiently for him outside. Her father had fallen in love with the Brompton Oratory when he was a young architect working in London. He called it 'a hidden treasure'.

Kate smiled, pleased to remember the sound of his voice. Although her father had been a successful architect - specialising in town houses and small hotels - Kate never remembered him discussing any details of his own work, other than financial matters with her mother, who also worked as a part-time secretary with the firm.

Kate had been born in London and the family had moved back to Dublin when she was six months old. She was the only child and, according to her mother, "the apple of her father's eye".

Kate sat in a pew at the back of the Oratory. Although the revelations of clerical child sex abuse in recent years had shaken her belief in the authority of the church and in many of its central doctrines, Kate still found some comfort in the margins of her faith - in the familiarity of its rituals and in the company of the devout. Lost in her own thoughts, she stood up, knelt down and shook hands, reflexively following the actions of the congregation without listening to anything that the priest was saying.

She had worn two pads to soak up any blood loss. She had been advised prior to discharge from the clinic to expect the bleeding to continue for a few days. Because she was just seven weeks, the midwife said that it would be light. Kate, however, did not want to take any chances. Although the weather was warm, she had worn slacks and a dark three-quarter-length coat. Walking up the aisle to Holy Communion, she thought she felt a slight trickle. She reassured herself that the precautions she had taken would prevent anything from being noticed.

As she knelt down after receiving Communion, Kate began to feel lightheaded. She opened the buttons of her coat and sat back on the seat. As she swallowed the remnants of the Communion wafer, she looked up at the vaulted ceiling of the Oratory.

The richly painted images of saints and church fathers appeared to look down disapprovingly at her.

Suddenly, she was overcome by a profound sense of loneliness. She had always resisted sentimentality and self-pity. She tried to remember her father's face, but could not picture it. Instead, the silhouette of him hanging from the apple tree in the back garden came repeatedly into her mind.

She stood up before the final blessing and walked towards the door. She noticed a large poster on the noticeboard inside the church porch. It featured a young woman with a worried look on her face clutching a phone receiver to her ear.

Beneath the photograph were contact numbers for a Catholic crisis pregnancy agency. Kate remembered once distributing similar posters on the university campus when she was a member of the college pro-life group.

By the time she found an empty carriage seat on the Heathrow Express, there were no spaces left in the luggage compartment inside the doors. As she did not have the strength to lift her suitcase onto the overhead rack, she placed it on her lap. She had to sit well back in the seat in order to avoid touching knees with a gangly teenager who was sprawled in front of her, listening to his iPod. The motion of the train coupled and the weight of the suitcase made her feel nauseous.

She was relieved that she had only had a cup of coffee in her hotel bedroom since early morning, having booked an economy bed-without-breakfast deal to reduce costs. There is nothing in my stomach to vomit apart from the Communion, she thought. Outside, fields, factories, stations, suburban back-gardens flashed by.

It reminded Kate of the train journey in Philip Larkin's The Whitsun Weddings. She had studied the poem at college. Closing her eyes, she recalled the innocence and exuberance of Larkin's Whitsun wedding parties, dressed to the nines in their late-1950s rig-outs, assembling on the platforms and clambering onto the train going towards London. Life moved at a different pace back then.

Kate reflected on her relationship with Barry. From the word go, there had been problems - he was a different person with drink on him - and the longer it went on, the more difficult it was to end. She hoped that she would meet the right person some time in the future. She believed in the ideal of marriage. She would love to have a baby when the circumstances were right. She thought that it was a great tragedy that her father would not be there to see his grandchild.

When she got back to Dublin, she would send out more CVs. She might be lucky enough to get some substitute work. She knew of a number of teachers who were going out on maternity leave in the coming months. The cruel irony was not lost on her. She would put up advertisements again in the local shops to give grinds, although she knew the demand for languages was limited, given the national obsession with science and mathematics. If the worst came to the worst, she would have to emigrate.

But what would happen to her mother if she left? She shuddered to think.

When she arrived at Terminal 1, Kate went immediately to the ladies. She was relieved that there was just a light staining. She felt that she would be alright on the flight back to Dublin. Although she had prepared fictional explanations for her trip to London in case she met anyone she knew - she was visiting a relative or a friend, depending on whom she met - Kate wanted nothing more than to get back to Dublin and her apartment without having to say anything more than confirming her name and flight details at the check-in desk.

As she rested on the lid of the toilet seat, thinking about what had happened over the last few months - her father's suicide, being let go from the school, falling behind on her mortgage repayments, breaking-up with Barry, the abortion - it all seemed unreal, as though it had happened to someone else, as though she had been a mere witness to a roller-coaster sequence of life events that wouldn't have been out of place in an omnibus edition of a TV soap. She felt the contour of her nose. There was still a noticeable bump where the bone met the cartilage - where Barry had broken it with his elbow. She had not reported him. Barry had pleaded with her not to.

He promised to give up the drink and begged for one last chance. Against her better judgment, Kate said that she had been accidentally hit with a squash racquet. The fact that she was not wearing sports gear did not seem to raise any suspicion for the sleep-deprived doctor in the overrun accident-and-emergency department. Alone in the back of the taxi on her way back home from the hospital, she knew that her relationship with Barry was in its final days.

The Ryanair 737 landed smoothly, five minutes ahead of schedule - to the applause of the cabin crew and some of the passengers - accompanied by the usual annoying, pre-recorded fanfare. Apart from having to repel the uninvited advances during the flight of a middle-aged, overweight, executive type, wedged into the seat beside her, by asking the cabin steward for some extra 'vomit bags', Kate was relieved to arrive at her car with the minimum of human interaction.

After emptying her suitcase and putting her clothes in the washing machine, Kate stood on the balcony of her apartment. Dusk had fallen. A fox emerged from the large expanse of waste ground just in front of her apartment block, cautiously crossed the road and disappeared into the shrubbery just beneath her. Although the residents continuously griped about the dilapidated state of the apartments and of the neighbourhood in general, Kate had a disguised admiration for the way in which nature had encroached on the deserted buildings and spaces. Wild lilac and poppies thrived in the cracks and crevices of the broken concrete slabs and walls, while the well-tended garden-centre plants in the apartment window-boxes struggled to survive. The looming outline of the unfinished office tower alongside her apartment block looked strangely impressive. In the fading light, you could not see the litter in the forecourt or the spray-paint graffiti or the numerous posters for concerts and protest marches, long since over, that were pasted and peeling on the perimeter hoarding. Kate went back inside and sat on the sofa. Tom Waits was on the radio. Kate loved his husky, world-weary voice. The radio presenter called him "The Troubadour of the Dispossessed". They are speaking to me on the airwaves, Kate said to herself.

Kicking off her shoes, Kate drew her feet under her and rested her head on the armrest of the sofa. She began to feel as though she was floating in mid-air. Memories of her father flooded into her mind. She turned off the radio.

Sequences of images were moving rapidly through her mind like a television screen on fast forward. Then, as though someone had pressed the play button, her father came clearly into focus. He was playing with her in the back garden. They were playing with a red ball. The images were vivid. Then her father was driving one of the bumpers on the seafront in Bray. He had one hand on the steering wheel and his other arm tightly around her. He was laughing out loud like he used to before the business collapsed.

When Kate awoke, she checked her iPhone. It was just after 2am. She had been asleep for over three hours. She sat up on the sofa. It took her some time to become accustomed to the darkness.

She made her way carefully to the door of her bedroom and turned on the light switch. She didn't bother to undress, and simply got into bed, turned off the light and pulled the duvet over her. She felt cocooned within its soft warmth. Trying to find her way back to the place in the dream about her father, from where she had left it, she drifted asleep.

She was awoken by the intensity of bright light flooding into her bedroom. It was just after midday. For a moment, she thought that she was waking up after the anaesthetic in London. She was relieved to find herself in her own bed. She put on her slippers and padded out to the shower. There had been no bleeding overnight. Wrapped in her dressing gown and with her hair still dripping wet, she made a cup of instant coffee and went out onto the balcony. She began to feel the warmth of the sun on her face.

Kate took the iPhone from the pocket of her dressing gown. She pressed the 'camera roll' sign and found the photograph she had taken in the clinic.

She remembered how the doctor had left the room in order to find a particular form that she had to sign in order to proceed with the abortion, apologising that he had run out of them. From the sound of his footsteps disappearing down the corridor, Kate sensed that he would be gone for a few minutes. Alone in the room with her chart, she opened it, and on finding the small black-and-white image of the scan, she instinctively photographed it using her phone - just as she photographed almost everything that she came across that drew her attention or fascinated her. Standing now on the balcony, she shielded her iPhone screen from the glare of the midday sun in the cradle of her cupped hands and examined the image intently. There was a small white + placed at either end of the embryo, and the distance between the +s was recorded as 12mm. Her mind was overwhelmed by surges of profound regret and relief. She could not imagine what would have happened to her if there had been any delays. There was no point in feeling bitter about having to travel abroad, no one was interested.

Kate thought that only women who had faced similar decisions would understand how you might choose to sacrifice a tiny life in order to protect it from being born into circumstances of utter desperation. She knew that she could not have coped with a baby, not at this time in her life. She could now understand the sense of hopelessness that had overwhelmed her father in his final days. And as for God, whose presence and attitude she frequently considered during this time, she was convinced that if he really did exist, that he must have the compassion to understand.

She remembered a quotation by someone she had once read about forgiveness being God's line of business: "C'est son metier." Kate often found herself repeating this phrase - both softly under her breath and silently in her mind.

The politicians, doctors and bishops who competed on a daily basis for soundbites in the media during the endless abortion debates had nothing to say to her. Even the counsellor, Kate felt, simulated empathy. She was relieved that there had been no complications and that she was now safely back home. She thought of the Brompton Oratory and how she might return there some day with her own children - if things worked out for her in the future - and how she would tell them about their grandfather, and how he loved this 'hidden treasure'.

Kate left the balcony and poured out another coffee. She switched on the television and sat down on the sofa. She would spend the rest of the afternoon tidying up the apartment. Then she would go to the supermarket to buy some food and a new ink cartridge to print off CVs. In the evening, she would phone her mother and Doireann to see how they were. And then she would go to bed early.

Prof Chris Fitzpatrick is a former master of The Coombe hospital. This story was written in the context of the ongoing debate on abortion after re-reading James Joyce's 'Dubliners'.

Sunday Independent

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