PAPER TRAIL is about the dangers of delving into the past. It was inspired by a number of things: partly by the immense popularity of family history, and especially the BBC programme Who Do You Think You Are? and partly by a telling little moment that happened while I was doing some research in the archive office of the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead. The archive centre there is a run-down affair in a house over the road from the hospital and I was working in there one day, looking at some of its records as part of my PhD research, when the phone rang in the archivist’s office. I couldn’t help hearing that it sounded a rather difficult call. Since I was the only researcher in that day, the archivist, Rachel, and I had our sandwiches together and I asked her about the call. It had been from a woman trying to trace her mother; she had found a record that suggested her mother had been born in the Royal Free Hostel and she wondered if that had been connected to the Royal Free Hospital. Indeed it had, but Rachel was then faced with the difficult task of telling the caller that the hostel had been for diseased prostitutes, and that therefore – well, you can see the problem. This was a highly sensitive issue, requiring careful and sympathetic airing, none of which had featured in Rachel’s professional training. This gave me the initial inspiration for PAPER TRAIL.
The other major inspiration was a remarkable piece of radio broadcasting by the late and very great Ludovic Kennedy. He did a number of series on recent historical topics, interviewing those who had gone through experiences like National Service and, in this case, the Child Migrants who had been sent to Australia by the British government in the middle years of the twentieth century. Although the story is rather better known in Britain than it used to be, until relatively recently it is fair to say that the story was largely unknown over here.
PAPER TRAIL tells how Angie, a middle-aged Australian lady, visits a north London hospital archive where she meets Mel, the young archivist and no great lover of genealogists. As they try to track down Angie’s mother and discover what happened to her, Mel and Angie get to know each other and Mel uncovers a terrible secret in Angie’s story – and is faced with the dilemma of what, if anything, to tell Angie…
PAPER TRAIL was first produced at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge in 2012.
In 2014 it was put on in Merrickville, Canada, as part of a Gala Theatre evening. These photos come from that production:
PAPER TRAIL is published by Lazy Bee Scripts
ANGIE: Well, if you’re sure it’s OK. I don’t suppose you often get stories like this. Or maybe you do? It’s a minefield, isn’t it? Family history?
MEL: You don’t often get anything this close. It’s usually about relatives a lot further back.
ANGIE: It is close, isn’t it? It’s very close.
MEL: Did you often wonder who your mother was?
ANGIE: All the time. I used to dream about her. Trying to picture her. I found this photo in a magazine when I was about seven, I suppose. The most beautiful face. Turned out it was Ava Gardner – that’s a Hollywood star, Mel, before your time. But I just thought she was so lovely, I wanted her to be my mother. So she was. I knew that people kept photographs of their children and their sweethearts, so I kept one of my mother in my diary. I used to talk to her in the evenings after supper, when the nuns left us to our own devices for half an hour. I used to tell her what my day had been like. Tell her about things the other girls did to me. I was even a bit shy about telling her which boys I liked in case she didn’t approve. But then one day, I was about fourteen, it just hit me. My mother was just an old crumpled photo from a magazine. And it wasn’t my mother either: it was Ava Gardner. And I cried, Mel. I lay with my face in my pillow and I sobbed. Well, you grow up, you put it all to one side, you keep going. But you don’t forget.
SISTER MARY ALOYSIUS: I am Sister Mary Aloysius. Who are you?
JOAN: Joan Dempsey, sister.
SISTER MARY ALOYSIUS: What do you want, Joan Dempsey?
JOAN: My baby was sent here two weeks ago. My little girl. From up Camden. I didn’t think I could keep her, you see. And – well, someone didn’t want me to. And one of the sisters said I should give her to you and I said yes. But now I’ve changed my mind. I want her back.
SISTER MARY ALOYSIUS: I see.
JOAN: I was all confused up at the hospital. I didn’t know what I was saying. But now I want her back. I want my little girl. Her name’s Beryl Dempsey.
SISTER MARY ALOYSIUS: Beryl Dempsey, eh? And you want her back. Just like that?
JOAN: She’s my baby.
SISTER MARY ALOYSIUS: How easy it all seems to you. You just decided to have her – I don’t suppose you know who the father is?
JOAN: Yeah, I do. He ain’t a very good man. He’d be no good for her. He’d hurt her. He didn’t want me to have her in the first place.
SISTER MARY ALOYSIUS: But you did. Bravo for that. And you very sensibly decided to send her here. And now you’ve changed your mind and you want to take her back again. Is that it?
JOAN: Yes, sister.
SISTER MARY ALOYSIUS: What made you change your mind?
JOAN: Don’t know. My conscience, I think.
SISTER MARY ALOYSIUS: Conscience! It’s a bit late for conscience.
JOAN: I don’t know why I changed my mind. But I want her back. Please, sister, I’m her mother. She’s all I’ve got. Please.
SISTER MARY ALOYSIUS: Her mother, is it? And what sort of home would you be taking her to? Because I might as well tell you now, I know a cheap little streetwalker when I see one.
JOAN: I’ve got a room. Up Camden Town.
SISTER MARY ALOYSIUS: In Camden Town, is it? I know the sort of room you’ll have.
JOAN: Can I take her please? You can’t stop me.
SISTER MARY ALOYSIUS: I’m afraid it won’t be possible.
JOAN: Why not?
SISTER MARY ALOYSIUS: Because she’s dead.
SISTER MARY ALOYSIUS: She died two days after she arrived. She was very sickly. And are you surprised?
JOAN: Beryl’s dead?
SISTER MARY ALOYSIUS: We did all we could for her. Oh, don’t start crying.
JOAN: She was my baby.
SISTER MARY ALOYSIUS: Well, she’s God’s baby now.
JOAN: What happened?
SISTER MARY ALOYSIUS: She was very sick. She had a fever. And convulsions in the night. She didn’t make it through to the morning. God rest her soul.
JOAN: She was all right. At the hospital. I seen her. She was all right.
SISTER MARY ALOYSIUS: And what would you know? Are you a doctor? It’s ended for the best. Don’t worry: we baptised her in good time.
JOAN: You baptised her? What for?
SISTER MARY ALOYSIUS: Mother of Mercy, what do you mean what for? Do you want her spending her days in Limbo?
JOAN: What name did you baptise her?
SISTER MARY ALOYSIUS: She was baptised Angela.
JOAN: Her name was Beryl! It was my mother’s name.
SISTER MARY ALOYSIUS: We gave her a proper name. After Saint Angela. Now she’ll have a patron saint praying for her.
JOAN: I named her after my mother. Not St bleeding Angela!
SISTER MARY ALOYSIUS: You will show more respect or you will get out now! St Angela will be more use to her now than your mother. Just be thankful someone was thinking of her interests.
JOAN: Did you bury her?
SISTER MARY ALOYSIUS: Of course we did.
JOAN: Can I see?
SISTER MARY ALOYSIUS: And what good would that do?
JOAN: So I can say good-bye. To my baby.
SISTER MARY ALOYSIUS: You said good-bye to her at the hospital. (Softens) Look – Joan, was it? – now there’s a good saint’s name. A fighting saint’s name. Don’t take it too hard. God has his way and we just have to work out what it is. Angela – Beryl – is in a much better place now than either you or me and she’ll be watching over her mother. God has given you an opportunity to turn your life around. Do you understand what I’m saying?
JOAN: Yes, sister.
SISTER MARY ALOYSIUS: Joan, do you understand what I’m saying? Heavens above, girl, look at you. You’ve got your whole life ahead of you. You’ll have other babies. What you need to do now is to go home, get some sleep, wake up in the morning and make a new start. And make sure you lead a very, very good life. That is the best thing you can do for her now. Go now. (Pause) I’ll pray for you. I promise.
JOAN: Yes, sister. I’m sorry. Thank you.
(SISTER MARY ALOYSIUS watches as JOAN goes back to the centre spot, sadly puts back on the wig and the ankle bracelet and goes off, crying gently to herself.)
SISTER MARY ALOYSIUS: (Contemptuous) Beryl.