Authors: Jonathan Gash
To my grandparents, Mr John and Mrs Mary Grant.
Magda decided to kill the priest in the Offertory.
No. That was wrong.
Kneeling there, Magda worked it out. Sister Paulina would never pass
for proper thinking.
Sister Paulina would say, ‘Oh, praise the Lord! Six-One has woken up at last, but not
sufficiently to provide us sinners with a
of what she means!’
Then would come the most terrible phrase on God’s sweet earth.
Six-One shall now explain
’ And in that terrible sing-song falsetto that set you stuttering until you broke down in tears, ‘We…are…
Magda felt tears start as the priest on the altar raised the chalice. She heard the altar-boy strike the gong and lowered her head, mouthing the Latin she did not understand. Then she tried, really did try, to get it right, because Sister Paulina was
‘I vow to kill the priest,’ she enunciated to herself slowly, making sure the words didn’t come right out into the open
where the other thirty-five, maybe forty, in the congregation would hear. ‘I shall choose my time. Right now, I happen to be in St Saviour’s Church, County Dublin, and the priest has just finished the Offertory in Holy Mass.’
She went over it, for clarity. ‘I didn’t mean I was going to kill Father Doran right here and now during the Offertory, no. I only decided during the Offertory that I am going to kill. And it is Father Doran up there who will do the dying when finally I get on with it.’
Right, she’d got it right! She felt so proud, kneeling there looking up at the altar while the priest did his sacred stuff. Sister Paulina would say to the rest of the class in St Joseph’s in the Magdalenes, ‘Finally Six-One has consented to tell us exactly what she meant! Applause, girls!’
And the rest of the class would clap and Magda would feel so proud at having got it right. Logic was Sister Paulina’s god.
Magda had not meant she was going to kill him dead while he was doing the Offertory in Holy Mass, dear God, no. That would have been the most terrible sin. Sacrilege at least, she didn’t wonder.
No, she would do it somewhere else, and not on consecrated ground like a church. Dear God! The very thought of killing a priest right here was beyond thinking. She would still need to work it out, how and where and that.
Father Doran came to the old folks’ home where Magda worked. A chance right there! Given her by God as a kind of invitation, if she dared think about it.
Now here was a problem, though. Did you have to say Amen at the end of a decision like that? Like, ‘I, who was Six-One at the Magdalenes, and am now Magda, vow to murder Father Doran,’ and simply leave it there? Or was it right to
say, so as not to offend God Almighty, ‘I, Magdalene, vow to murder Father Doran. A
’? With the Amen of course pronounced like Catholics always had to, Ayyyy…
to show Heaven you were of the One True Faith and not a sinful Protestant, who would die for certain and fry in Hell for all eternity and bad cess to the lot of them. Protestants always said, English fashion, Ahhhh…men, and bad cess to
and all. She thought about it all through the Consecration, and finally thought, oh, well, God will know I’m honestly trying to say it properly, for He is listening hard to catch you out. Magda said a careful ‘Ayyyy…
Done and dusted, as Mrs O’Hare said to Magda and the other cleaners at the St Cosmo Care Home for the Elderly when the sluice was straight about one o’clock.
Murder the priest, that same Father Doran as ever was, and then get on with being pure and holy like a good girl. She was sure it was that one and the same Father Doran, so the quicker she got on with her sworn solemn duty to murder him, the better.
Her own special Amen made it an oath, decent and truthful. Magda, loyal to the Faith, would carry it out. She didn’t really know how, never having done anything like this, but a dutiful daughter of the Faith had to be faithful, or you went to Hell.
Now she had taken that mighty oath, Magda wondered about details. You would have to make it tidy like a hospital corner on a bed. (She was good at those.) You couldn’t shirk an oath. God was up there witnessing. If it worked, then it would be a sign –
it worked. Then she would go to confession and see how little she could get away with telling the priest for it to be a true confession and not a false one, and be pure again.
Her only risk was dying before she got shriven, for then she would fry away for all eternity with them Protestants for company, and what was the use of that?
No. Do it quick, murder the priest, then rush to confession and she’d be white again after doing a bad black deed. The Magdalenes had taught her to stay a good girl. Whatever you did, don’t be bad. Ever.
She went dutifully up to the altar rail for Holy Communion, and even looked up at Father Doran when he came along and gave her a Host by placing it gently on her tongue, the way she had been taught to receive the Body and Blood of Our Lord, and never to chew it (you went to Hell for all eternity) or to let bits of it to get stuck between your teeth (Hell, eternity again), and what if you then forgot what it was and spat it out (Hell, etc.).
She went back to the pew and knelt, and when her mouth was clear and the Host safely swallowed – she always peeled it from her palate using her tongue and then got it down in one, for safety from Hell – she waited for the
It being Sunday, she went home. Bernard would come about eleven o’clock, almost as soon as she got back, and do his shedding with her, and she would feel quite refreshed afterwards and pleased with life, and that she’d done right by everybody.
Six o’clock she would go on duty at the old folks’ home. She’d work out how to go murdering the priest. It sounded simple, said quick.
You couldn’t muck about with oaths. Hers was now sacred. She didn’t really know why she’d not thought of it before. It made her feel quite proud, a sacred oath to herself.
Lucy still kept falling to her death during every one of Magda’s sleepless nights, over and over in the dark down the deep stairwell. Lord God Almighty, You know it, for You see everything. You were there. And the girl, Magda’s friend, kept falling. Even when Bernard the Garda was doing his shedding in broad daylight in Magda’s bed-sit, Lucy kept falling in the darkness of Magda’s mind, even as Bernard was exploding in passion or whatever happened to a man when he spent. Night or day, Lucy kept on falling. You know it, Lord. And Father Doran must know it too. Except, does he remember how Lucy died? Does he remember who Lucy is? I do, Lord.
She walked from the church, crossing herself as she left. And I pray that afterwards, she thought nervously, wondering if she was being cheeky to God asking this outright, when the priest is buried and in his grave in the arms of Your tender mercies, Lord, please let Lucy stop falling and give her eternal rest in Heaven, and give her some lovely dinners with maybe even lamb chops, if it is Thy divine will, oh Lord.
I hope so. Please let the priest not suffer, but please let him know and understand why he had to get murdered. I think this quite essential, or he won’t really understand and maybe it wouldn’t count.
Maybe then Lucy will stop falling, she thought, and I shall be able to sleep.
The bed-sit took Magda by surprise every time she came back to it.
This was her own place, where nobody else,
could go unless she said they could – and that was an amazement. She had to wander round it every time, looking at the walls as if fearing they would vanish and there she’d be, back in the Magdalenes under prying eyes ready to punish her for whatever she got blamed for.
Even now she walked slowly round, touching things. The Baby Belling had frightened her at first. A cooker this small, this personal, her very own that switched itself on whenever she clicked its switch, that cooked whatever she put into its miniature belly and slid onto its narrow grill? She felt sorry for it. So servile. Then she thought, look, it’s got its own place where nobody can worry it. That made it her friend, and she felt fond.
The wallpaper was ugly for sure, but its skewed roses and deformed faded vine leaves soon became her ugliness, and it too was an ally. The bed tilted in its springing, but that was
all right because it was hers. It let down from the wall and hid there during the day once Magda had folded its sheets away. Not her sheets, of course, and Mrs Shaughnessy checked them every week when Magda had to pay for old ones to be washed. The fridge was another friendship, devoted and yet busy. It kept mackerel best for Fridays, which was also sheet day.
Magda thought Mrs Shaughnessy guessed she couldn’t count or read but the old lady never said anything about it. Magda felt truly happy there. It was like being a princess in her own tower.
Sure as God made Eire good and England bad, here came Bernard O’Fallon at eleven o’clock. She’d made him soda bread with thick Kerry Gold Irish butter that Bernard liked. She resented the price of things. Butter was a case in point. It cost more in Eire, she’d heard well-travelled folk say, than in England. Magda knew it was because the evil English made pure Irish butter cheap for Protestants and really dear in Eire. That was their way, always against Eire, whose farmers struggled might and main to make butter pure and wholesome, and there were the wicked English making fortunes for themselves. Everybody knew why, except Magda. She couldn’t read or write so had to pretend in the supermarket and ask them to find things for her and take money for the shopping from her purse. She had to trust folk. Shamed because of her lack of the letters and the numbers and the counting, Magda longed for somebody else to take the blame. Sadly there was no one. It would have been grand to have had reading and numbers. Things were all the worse because she was truly wondrous about the meaning of words. She’d only to hear a word to use it right and get it exact every single time, her one saving grace. Her head must be like a whole dictionary inside, sure it must.
Bernard was splendid in his Garda Siobhana uniform. It thrilled her. She was ready for him and saw that he ate well. She did eggs for him mixed so no soft bits showed, and was glad to see him gulp it away good like a Christian. She watched him finish his tea, marvelling at the way God had made a man tender in the gullet so they couldn’t swallow hot drinks like any decent woman could. Yet here was Bernard the Garda, the one male in the whole of Eire who could drink hot tea still a-bubble from the heat. The
man in Eire with a gullet like a woman. Would you think of it! Magda wondered at the ways of God. What had possessed Him to make one man with a throttle as leathery inside as a woman’s? But God had purpose in His workings. His wonders were inscrutable.
After, she perched astride Bernard’s legs, amazed at the bulk of the man, and helped him off with his uniform jacket. Judging when the man was ready caused her anxiety, especially at first. She’d had a hard time learning that, getting it so badly wrong she sometimes cried herself to sleep, even after he’d been doing it to her a good sixmonth. These were things the nuns never taught you at the Magdalenes. You had to learn it on your own, trial and error, which was a terrible way for people to have to get on. God, wasn’t she nineteen years of age, if she could believe them Magdalene Sisters? Magda had no way of knowing if anything they taught you was true or not, not having the letters or numbers.
Another thing about…what it was a man did to a woman, though folk nowadays spoke that word even on TV plain as you like. It was impossible to pass a railway station stall without seeing naked people printed in different colours a hundred times. Her friend Theresa said it was the English who forced Eire into that bad way of thinking, for hadn’t she the proof in
the TV programmes shown scandalously every night on Irish TV, the RTE, sometimes even speaking the words aloud bold as brass? Theresa knew somebody who’d talked with somebody’s wife’s cousin who could prove that the English were determined to corrupt Eire like they were themselves, by buying up all the magazines and TV stations in the land to spread sin.
Her problem for now was being still while Bernard was doing it, and trying to think ahead and see if she could predict what he’d want in a minute, before or after he did his explosion, or whether he’d want her to get going. That was what he said, ‘Get going, Magda.’ She had then to start moving. A list of things put down in order would help, what you had to do, then if she could read it might ease her mind. The libraries should write it down for everybody, or the Dail in Dublin parliament, so the Taoiseach could say it was right and proper and get it stamped by the holy Imprimatur so people could learn it. Also, move how exactly? The first time he’d given her that gruff command, she was stricken in alarm, and even tried to ask it right out, ‘How exactly, bonnie?’ but he’d gripped her and shoved her forward and back, forward and back. She hadn’t known until then that some men had kindness, whatever the degree of scald-resistant leatheriness of their gullets. Bernard had kindness. He’d shown her how to move when he said to. The relief of that!
He gave her money afterwards, sometimes, but it was nothing to do with her letting him do it, because they were friends. And he was upset quite often lately, which was new to her because she’d had no idea men ever got upset. It was the sort of thing you didn’t think they bothered with, but Bernard was, more times than he let on. When it happened, he would have shiny eyes, like tears tried to escape. Now, a woman simply
let go, which was good because it meant that the tears weren’t wasted at all, just doing what God intended, to leak the sorrow there inside that caused them in the first place. That way – God had worked it out – the tears carried away the sorrow, at least enough of it to get you back on your feet so you could make do until something happened that made the day manageable.
No, Bernard rose from doing it to her, and when he went to wash or get himself smart in his Garda Siobhana uniform to go on duty, she noticed he’d washed his face and his eyes were dry and level again.
But for the moment, there she sat while he rocked and the pressure on her thighs was beyond belief, so bulky was he. She always wondered why God made a man so massive and the woman less. It was part of God’s inscrutable design for mankind, the man heavy, the woman light. Sometimes, too, she started to feel heat, and even start to move with, against, with, against, Bernard’s thrutchings and sometimes she too grunted, feeling urges she never would have believed. She told of them in confession, of course. Bernard also shouted when he did his explosion, threshing and his mouth open like a cavern and she had to cover his gaping gob with a hand to stifle his noise.
It was exhausting, but God had it planned all right, because what if they never even got tired and kept on and on, what would come of civilisation then with everybody staying at it all the time and never going to work? The wondrous works of God were unknowable, yes, but some of them weren’t as inscrutable as all that, or where would we be? Bernard slept heavily after spending. She often wondered too at the stuff he spilt, what it looked like, what would it feel like between your fingers, did it have the colour and how many little creature things were inside it, that sort of thing.
She’d heard girls talking, once at the Magdalenes when she was in the laundry duty with her friend Lucy (the same one who kept falling every night since she died in the dark stairwell), who was always called by her number, Three-Two, because the nuns didn’t say names much of girls who had no parents. One of the other girls said in a whisper, ‘I saw it once. There’s an English word for it, jism, didn’t you know? It’s sort of sticky cream.’ It had been the talk of the whole place for days and days until they got overheard by one of the nuns and the whole place got docked the next meal.
Magda wished she’d not thought of that, for Bernard was starting to flail almost, maybe another ten or twelve pushes and he’d be done for this time, and she liked that bit because then she relaxed knowing she’d done her womanly duty. She then started to harbour secret feelings and they sometimes rose and even engulfed her so she too sort of jerked and grunted and even, sometimes but not often, flailed in a kind of lesser way that was surely sinful but fulfilling.
But today thoughts of Lucy made Magda stay meek and motionless while Bernard, who today mercifully stayed mute and didn’t give his gruff command for her to do one of them quick turn-overs she had to sometimes do at the last minute, gave his loud groan (Magda’s hand swiftly over his mouth for Mrs Shaughnessy on the landing) and flailed like a cable in a storm.
This time, he continued spending into her somewhat longer than usual, which Magda didn’t mind because what your man did was of a pattern. He held her in a grip so punishing she could not get her breath going until he eased, and she was glad to inhale and work out how she felt. She knew Bernard was not being different, just vehement, so that was all right, staying within the tramlines of his carry-on. It did not mean
new behaviour, no. That would worry her. Magda naturally wanted the creature to stay all of a sort, fixed in the things he did and said, however strange, and what on earth could be stranger than this that he kept doing every single time?
Magda often wondered how a man learnt this. She thought, I mean, it can’t simply be that they tell each other what to do, can it? For that would get about, folk would hear and they’d get a right royal thrashing from the priests and the Gardai too, and questions would be asked in the Dail and the Taoiseach would go mental over the terrible state of morals in Eire, and it might even get into the holy papers.
No, Bernard stayed the same. It was just that Magda watched out for switches in his mood, for moods can be anything. If it meant he moved out of her ken, away from her understanding, then the mood was bad and dangerous – never mind how or why, it was definitely to be abhorred. If he stayed in his tramlines, then he was all right and she was safe in her mind. It was the way God made each and every one of us, even the sparrows. The Bible said that, so there you go.
This time, though, she felt his behaviour was a little changed. It wasn’t just the long spillage he’d just come to an end of, no. It had something to do with the thinking in his brain, and that meant he might say it out or keep it to himself. In either case, it was nothing she’d done bad or wrong, just that he wasn’t quite what she could now predict as safe and tramlined.
Fine, he had a wife, and had two children fathered of his very own, which was all right because marriage was immutable. People had to stay married for life, except where the English had their foot in the door to start everybody divorcing like mad, being Protestants and therefore evil by nature like Communists. No, nothing to do with her, just something in himself. Magda
couldn’t help wondering if it was to do with those occasional silent, no-crying tears he kept to himself that she was never to notice at all. That might cause Bernard’s behaviour to change, which would never do because that would be her fault. He wouldn’t leave, no, she was certain of that.
She never helped him to dress up in his fine gear afterwards. She often wondered about that because when he’d had his meal she usually, unless he was in a desperate hurry, had time to help him take off his jacket. But afterwards? No. Was it that he felt he had to be careful and show no sign so he’d not leave traces of Magda others might see? Something simple like that. He was going on duty and had to know where everything was – pen, watch, notebook, a set of forms and a small telephone thing he didn’t want her ever to touch at all.
‘You’re a fine man, bonnie,’ she told him. A man was an admirable thing despite his ferocities, which was probably why God made Himself male and left the other things to females or nuns.
He was checking himself in the mirror. ‘I wish to God I was, Magda.’
‘Oh, y’are, Bernard, a grand sight.’
‘I wish all men were, Magda.’
And he sat down, which was a rare thing for Bernard to do after he’d done it and dressed, because usually he was out of the door with her listening on the landing for Mrs Shaughnessy, who had ears like a bat and a voice like a Liverpool ship’s foghorn.
‘Oh, all men are made—’
He said it in his Garda voice, which meant she was to say no more until this was over and done with. She knew it was that silent trouble come back again, best cleared up before he left.
He stayed with his fingers linked, his arms on the rests of the wooden chair, his knees apart and staring into the fire, which she always made when she knew he was going to call. It was as important as feeding him, this fire, and warmth in her place while he did the thing. She had only seen him adopt that posture once before, when he had found somebody dead in a garret, though it was natural causes only and caused no real fuss at the Gardai station, where he had to fill in a stack of forms causing him trouble for days.
He said, eyes into the firelight, ‘I passed a man today.’
‘Ah.’ Here it was, the threatened silence coming out.
‘I knew him.’
‘Did you now?’
She knew to stay quiet, not busy herself about the place nor even take his hand like felt natural. He didn’t offer more. Into her mind came the terrible sight of her friend Lucy. Falling into a dark stairwell was a fearsome thing only God could explain, if He could bother with Magda wanting to understand so terrible a death.