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I ,  C a r o l i n e

by Nuala Ní Chonchúir

‘Mama,’ I said. My voice is thin and squeaky and sometimes people can’t hear me, so I called her again, louder this time: ‘Mama’.

She walked away. Dr Gilligan held me too tight – squeezing me through my clothes – and he made a gurgly laugh. His breath smelt like meat.

‘Come now, Caroline my dear,’ he said and kissed me with his flabby lips, half on my mouth. That left a wet patch on me and I rubbed it away with my fingers.

He brought me on the big boat to England; it dropped and lifted in the sea, and I felt sick and called for Mama. Dr Gilligan locked the cabin door and lifted me up onto the high bed; I sat there. He licked his lips and said, ‘Well, well’. He picked at my clothes with his hands until they were all off me. Then he tipped me with his cold fingers and laughed; his face got red and he coodled like a pigeon and shook himself. I felt cold.

In London I got new clothes and an old man made them for me and they were lady’s clothes. The man stood me on a big wooden table and measured me with a tape and he said, ‘How lovely you are’; he was a nice old man. And the clothes he gave me were beautiful: a shiny black dress with a ruffly-puffly white collar and a blue velvet dress with slim sleeves. In another shop I got a hat with a feather and golden ear-rings and I felt happy, but very tired.

Dr Gilligan brought me around to see all the people in Liverpool and Oxford and Birmingham. I had my own wooden caravan – painted in gay greens and reds – and the people paid in to meet me. The ladies turned their noses away from me, but the men liked me. So I would laugh for them and smile; then they laughed too and felt nice. They liked the way I walked, a bit wobbly and slow, and sometimes they would bend down and take my hand and kiss it. Then they would give me biscuits and – because I was called The Sicilian Fairy – Dr Gilligan taught me to say thank you in Italian, which was ‘Grazie’. I would eat the biscuits and say ‘Yum-yum’. Everyone would laugh again and clap their hands for me; all for me. Sometimes my neck felt tight and I would cough and have to have a little rest against the pillows on the caravan’s bed, before meeting more people.

Dr Gilligan brought me to see The King – King George the Fourth – in his home, which was called Carlton House, and I got a new red dress and the ruby ring that’s in the glass case on the floor now. It was a special occasion. When we were brought in, I curtsied to The King; his mouth made an ‘o’ shape and he pulled his breath in through his teeth like a cold wind.

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