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Authors: Jonathan Gash

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BOOK: Bad Girl Magdalene
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‘And Dominic said to me when we stepped onto the top step—’

‘Put your arm through mine, Philly,’ Magda said, out of breath at so much contact between a brother – a man, after all
– and a girl in full view of the world and especially the nuns, and Mother Superior probably itching to call a Novena to save their lost charge from perdition and the burning in Hellfire at such goings-on.

‘And I’ll tell you what was the strangest thing on God’s earth,’ Philippa said, remembering what had happened that fateful day. ‘I’d no idea that my mother had a pet name for me before she died, but she had always called me Philly, God rest her soul.’


‘And ever since Dominic always calls me Philly. So do my aunties and my uncle, like I’d never ever been anyone else at all.’

‘That’s marvellous,’ Magda breathed, relaxing with the utter relief of Philippa’s tale, as Dominic with Philly on his arm walked bold as brass out of the gate to a car belonging to the Garda Siobhana parked at the kerb, where two of the Gardai were having a smoke.

‘I kept thinking, will they send me back?’

‘They couldn’t, though,’ Magda protested, anxious now at this bit and keen to defend Philippa from last-minute dangers. She explained for the sake of thoroughness, ‘Because your brother had the papers, see?’

‘Because he had the papers.’

‘And nobody could touch you.’

‘That’s the truth, Magda. Thanks be to God.’

‘Amen.’ Magda had started asking, a routine as the story of Philippa’s rescue reached its conclusion, ‘Can the Magdalenes still come for me?’

‘Now you’re eighteen? I don’t think so.’

‘I’d run away.’ Magda said it without conviction, because there was never a chance of anybody running away, not ever.
They always sent the Garda Siobhana after you and brought you back. Look at the story the old man Mr Liam MacIlwam told her, whose relative she was going to see tomorrow – if she dared turn up where he’d told her to be at six o’clock, him on his old motorbike and dripping tears on his chin.

‘I keep asking Dominic to look at the papers and tell me if they’re making new laws about me,’ Philippa said, putting the fear of God into Magda who instantly felt faint.

‘Can they do that?’


‘Will they?’

‘To take us back? Not any more they won’t. That’s what Dominic tells me, but he never says it when my aunties are there or my uncle.’

‘Why not?’

‘They get mad.’

‘With him?’

‘Sure. Dominic says talking like that makes them feel bad, like they ought to have done something a lot earlier and didn’t.’


‘It’s been in all the papers, Magda.’

‘What has?’

‘Bad things. At the industrial schools and that. The Magdalenes too, though we got away light, so they say now. Except they weren’t there.’

‘Who? What schools?’

‘Ranter. Lots of others.’

‘What happened?’

‘I listen to the old ones here talking. Sometimes it’s them who were there. Sometimes it’s their friends. Sometimes it’s their relatives. It’s what happened.’

Magda knew the old folk talked when they should have been sleeping in the afternoon, but she never woke them or even went to them unless they called for her because the nuns were always off somewhere and the real nurses, who wore hospital badges to show they’d got trained proper, only ever said hush, hush, to them and said things were all right now. You could never tell with old people if what they saw was real and what they were thinking was from times past. Magda knew then it was the same with her and her friend Lucy, the falling girl.

‘What things?’ Magda was mad with herself for being so stupid she couldn’t read. Otherwise she would have been able to read newspapers like Dominic. He was a clerk in the library and ‘could look things up’ any time of day or night, even while he was at work. This meant finding things out.

‘Shhhh.’ Philippa’s warning came just in time to interrupt Magda’s daydreaming, because the lecture was ending. Father Doran in there was chuckling and the nuns were tittering and the chairs scraping away and feet sounding on the boards. So it was time to carry the trays in.

Father Doran had been about on duty the evening of the night Lucy had fallen. Magda had seen him, but Father Doran had not seen her, thanks be to God.

‘The tea trays, girls,’ Sister St Jude said, cruising past with her long skirt swishing the floorboards.

‘I hope it’s Dundee cake today,’ Father Doran said with a laugh as he emerged among the nuns.

‘Oh, Father Doran!’

‘I trust I shall be forgiven in Heaven!’

‘Amen to that,’ Sister Francesca said, but without a smile.

‘Now, Sister Francesca,’ Sister Winifred said in mock rebuke which set the nuns laughing. Magda noticed, but
instantly averted her eyes so she would not earn a rebuke, that Sister Francesca did not smile with the rest and wondered if she had been told off. Though nuns could hardly be told off as if they were ordinary lay people, could they? They were nuns, after all.

Father Doran slapped his own hand in sham punishment.

‘Take that, for going on too long about Infallibility. I knew I should have chosen a different subject!’

The nuns laughed, and this time Sister Francesca did permit herself a small smile, but tight like she had a kind of coming toothache that was causing her difficulty. She scanned the tea trays, her duty, and saw Magda was holding the one for the office where Sister St Jude would entertain Father Doran to tea for a half hour, and gave a curt nod.

‘Dundee, I see, girls.’

‘Yes, Sister.’

‘Who baked it?’

‘Please, Sister Francesca, Mrs Malahide did it last evening. She says it should be left a day or two more to get firmed up, but it was either that or Battenberg.’

‘Then Mrs Malahide did right, girls. Please tell her thank you from us, will you?’

‘Yes, Sister.’

‘The tray now, and set the water boiling.’

‘Yes, Sister.’

Philippa had the gift of seeming just the same the instant the nuns showed, but Magda knew she could not stay looking like she was innocent. Philippa could be talking all kinds of perdition, yet once the nuns were in sight her face composed itself into a diligence that would deceive an angel. It was remarkable. Magda was so envious of Philippa, not just because
she had a real brother and real aunties and an uncle she lived with, but because she was untouchable and nobody could take her back into the Magdalenes, having a family.

Soon, though, she thought, as she picked up the tray and went slowly and carefully up to the office where Sister St Jude and Father Doran waited for their teas, she would have set Lucy free by killing this Father Doran, and that would free herself too and she could sleep like a Christian safe from dreams.

One terrible, possible horrendous, thing happened as she carried the tray slowly inside and laid it on the tray trolley within Sister St Jude’s reach, as she and the priest sat facing and talking, and received a nod to leave.

Father Doran said, quite audibly, as Magda reached the door, ‘Has that girl been here some time, Sister St Jude? I have a notion she was at one of the places I ministered to.’

‘Magda? She was a Magdalene child, orphan and farmed out to work.’

‘Ah. Maybe it was there I noticed her previously.’

‘You remember her from somewhere?’

‘Perhaps.’ A sigh. ‘There are so many.’

‘Yes, and more is the pity, Father.’

‘Indeed. The plight of the schools is my concern in this diocese, Sister.’

‘Has Bishop MacGrath said anything more? Anything that may be divulged, I mean.’

‘I blame the gutter press. They lack all sense or restraint or responsibility to children, Church or the state of Eire. Thankfully, though, they seem to have dropped it for the whilst.’

‘Perhaps other things concern them.’ Sister St Jude spoke with irony.

‘Yes. Some scandal with a pop star, or some football outrage.’

Magda slowly let the door click. It was glass, though, and she knew the shape of any listener could be seen quite clearly if the light was on in the hall, which it almost invariably was even in daylight. She stood listening but to one side of the door.


Sister Francesca’s voice almost made Magda yelp. She stood back, startled and afraid. She stared at the nun, who was within a yard of where she had been eavesdropping.


Sister Francesca beckoned Magda away to stand close to the vestibule.

‘Were you deliberately listening to the priest’s conversation with Sister St Jude?’ And after a pause, ‘I am waiting, Magda.’

‘Please, Sister Francesca, Father Doran asked if he had seen me before.’

‘He meant you in particular?’

‘Yes, Sister.’

‘And did he address you directly?’

‘No, Sister.’

‘To whom was he speaking, Magda?’

‘To Sister St Jude.’

‘Then by what right do you listen to the conversation of two people in authority over this establishment?’

‘Please Sister, I know I was doing wrong, but I was frightened.’

‘Frightened? Of what?’

‘That Father Doran would send me back, Sister.’

‘Back?’ Sister Francesca inspected Magda as if for presenting
to an audience. ‘Back where? You were in the Magdalenes, weren’t you?’

‘Yes, Sister.’

‘Where? Sandyhills, wasn’t it?’

‘Yes, Sister.’

‘There is no possibility of that, not now or at any future time. That is the case.’

‘Yes, Sister,’ Magda said, who didn’t quite believe it.

‘You were an orphan?’

‘Please, Sister, yes. I was Six-One.’

‘And you are happy here?’

‘Yes, Sister! Of course, Sister!’ Magda’s constant, if terrified, reply since she was rising five.

‘Then do not commit an offence of that kind ever again, do you hear?’

‘Yes, Sister.’

‘Very well. I shall say no more about it. Go back to your duties.’

As Magda turned away with a mutter of thanks, the nun said, ‘Magda? You did not meet Father Doran before, did you?’

‘No, Sister. Not that I remember.’

‘Did he attend your convent?’

‘I don’t know, Sister. I never saw him, no.’

‘Very well.’

Magda was dismissed and hurried away. She felt Sister Francesca’s eyes on her all the way to the bend of the corridor.

It had been a near thing. She wondered about Sister Francesca. How many of the lies Magda had just told her had she detected? Any? None?

Magda finally worked it out.

Killing a priest counted as murder, so you would have to be careful. Two more days, and she’d do it. The question was, how? Dundee cake, or the liquid he swigged when talking to old Mr Gorragher, who had no first name but who said he once worked in Sheriff Street on the north side of Dublin? He worked in a bar there.

Killing a priest was a serious matter, and she didn’t want the ginger-headed Garda motorcycle lad to come round in his black leathers and boots arresting her with his sergeant and taking her to be hanged. Where would that leave Lucy? Forever falling into that terrible pit of suffering as she fell again night after night, and her bloodied head and matted hair spread across her pillow. And the nuns struggling to carry out the girl’s body from the dormitory so ineptly because they’d forgotten something. Silly stupid women that they were, in spite of God backing them up. No man would ever be so forgetful when he had some serious lifting to do, no, he’d be whistling and maybe grunting a little then saying things like, ‘This side down
a bit, George, now go straight’ while the other man, his mate, would say, ‘Got it, Harry,’ and they’d lift easy as wink with that incomprehensible, ‘One, two…
’ they called out to lift anything together. They’d remember the iron things to put across between the poles that slotted into the canvas stretcher. No, the nuns that horrible horrendous night forgot the iron so they couldn’t lift it properly and they carried the dead girl from the dormitory in a canvas bundle like a carpet.

Old Mr Gorragher was a man who had been a soldier. She heard him talking to nobody when she hoovered round his bed and he was scratching, forever scratching at nothing on his head where several scars showed ugly puckering of the skin that had gone extraordinarily white, like it was trying to untangle something all knotted up within. She heard him the afternoon Father Doran came. That’s what gave her the idea of changing her scheme of how to kill the priest and so stop poor Lucy falling.

‘See, Alanna,’ old Mr Gorragher suddenly chimed up, quite as if she had been chatting to him the best part of an hour when in fact she had only just come into his little alcove with her noisy vacuum cleaner, ‘I thought the whole fucking army was terrible, seeing everybody was trying to kill everybody. That’s what they say, Father.’

Alanna? Father? thought Magda, hoovering away round the old man’s bed but saying nothing, just keeping on with her work because Sister Raphael had ears like a bat and would come swishing up in her old nun’s gown complaining and asking what was wrong. Sister Raphael forbad any interruption in the cleaning, the business of housekeeping, the cooking and especially the machines – Jesus, the machines, they had to keep going night and day because otherwise it proved to Sister
Raphael that you’d ‘caused serious expenses to be incurred by the Care Home that were quite unwarranted’. It meant it was your fault. A girl called Liz, whose mam was born in Mary’s Lane back of Four Courts, where she kept telling everybody there was nothing but judges and lawyers as far as the eye could see, and who was so misshapen you had to be charitable about her legs, this girl called Liz left something cooking in the microwave – she knew how to work it – and Sister Raphael smelt the burning. There was merry Dickens to pay, and Liz was told she’d have to pay the money for the microwave oven, only a titchy thing, from her wages. Liz said that was unfair and said she’d get those old judges to write to Bishop MacGrath to complain that Liz was being oppressed and disadvantaged, words she had to explain to Magda, who overheard and was intrigued. She was intrigued because somehow Sister Raphael never said another Christian word about the microwave and Mr Bourne, who came to mend things, mended it and said it was good as new but was like to catch fire if used much longer.

That caused a right old barney for two days.

When old men started going on about what had happened in the past, they tended to use bad words Magda did not quite follow. She never tried to get to the bottom of such talk because Heaven alone knew what they might mean. So when Mr Gorragher started on about his wounds – he had several more, one great long one in his belly because of some terrible fight in one of his old wars – and the swear words came, Magda just hoovered on, not listening. He was only talking to himself and not really to her at all.

‘I learnt different.’

‘Oh?’ One of Magda’s absent responses.

‘Truth to tell, they were the dregs.’

‘Dregs, eh?’ Another of Magda’s keep-going responses then she could get finished and clear herself for the next job with Sister Raphael and not get into trouble.

‘Armies always are, see?’

‘That’s so, is it?’

‘Sure ’tis. Gutter crew, they said we were, all for the King’s shilling.’

And he sang a little bit of that song that started:







‘Now you shush, Mr Gorragher, there’s a good man.’

Magda said that because it wasn’t really a very Christian song at all, but was probably one of them songs they sang in Northern Ireland, where the English drank themselves stupid on their strawy old beer and there were Union Jacks all over the place and the Red Hand of Ulster, which caused all the wickedness that haunted mankind ever since God had made the Garden of Eden. You didn’t ought to sing some songs, that’s all. Magda tried to stop him singing his song, but not caring much at all, while she vacuumed away round his bed and then the rest of his alcove.

The old man sang on:





Then came the awful uncomfortable part Magda never liked. It went:




The song left you hanging there and thinking, well, get on with it, did the soldiers ever come home or not?

‘I used to sing that with a Lancashire lad who was a thief.’

‘A thief, was he, Mr Gorragher?’ Magda had heard it all before.

‘Nimble as that little fairy thing that goes red at Christmas with Peter Pan on that old stage show.’

‘Oh, I know that one all right, Mr Gorragher,’ said Magda, though she didn’t. ‘At Christmas, isn’t it?’

She left the hoover running, standing straight up so it wouldn’t fall, so as to keep bat-eared Sister Raphael happy in her old office along the corridor, and started dusting round Mr Gorragher’s few possessions – just a lick and a promise, as the cooks would say when they had to wipe down the kitchen surfaces for the inspecting nun to come and say they could all go and the day was ended.

‘I took the grandchildren. Pantomime.’

‘Ah, them things.’

‘He never stole from me, or from lads in the company.’

‘That’s a good lad, then.’

‘Not even from any other squaddie in our unit, though God knows we were hungry enough. The fighting started and the shells were bursting all over and round. Shit flying everywhere.’

‘God help them poor boys.’

Magda wasn’t sure whether she had heard this story before. She got mixed up with other tales the old men drifted into
telling of a late afternoon when she had to side up and finish the cleaning. She knew soon Mr Gorragher would start telling how he and his mate stole some stores from the locals and sold them. Then he would offer her a drop of whisky, telling her it was ouzo or wine from Italy.

‘Two boys bought it next to me and Lanky, standing there one minute then simply folded up like newspapers with blood all in their middles.’

‘God rest the poor souls.’

He was in his afternoon chair, legs out on them raised things Magda could never lift, so the old man’s feet would raise up to where they didn’t get fat and start having big red sores.

‘It was so peaceful.’

‘With all them old guns and bombs? I’m coming round that side with the hoover. You’ll have to let me swing your feet round, Mr Gorragher.’

‘Best job I ever had. War isn’t so bad. It’s like a raffle.’

‘Is it, now. Feet.’

‘A million times better than in the Ranter.’

‘Ranter. Is it, now.’ Magda tried to make this bit without a question in case it got the old man started on how he’d been a little boy in the Ranter. She never liked this bit. ‘Keep still.’

‘War was the same for us all, officers and men up against it. The war took you in ones, twos, a few at a time, or a lot, or none of you and you were safe. Ranter wasn’t.’

‘Wasn’t it.’

Still without a question, but what could she say? She couldn’t pretend she wasn’t there, the old hoover whirring away or she’d get in trouble with Sister Raphael, and what then?

‘Ranter was hell. Blothey was there too. A Christian Brother slammed his head through the stair sticks and twisted him.
That’s why he died. He wailed. He didn’t scream, didn’t Blothey. He just wailed. I’ll remember it to the day I die.’

‘God rest the poor boy.’ Blothey was a new name. The last time Mr Gorragher had told this tale it had been a boy called, what, Dondie, was it?

‘They made a picture for the television. I should have gone to them and told them. I heard they were asking for oldsters like me to come and tell them what happened. The priest said at St Gabriel the Archangel that telling things and making TV pictures about them was the devil’s work. He said it would be destructive to the Faith.’

‘You didn’t go.’


‘Perhaps it’s just as well, Mr Gorragher.’

‘You think I should have, Jane?’

So she was Jane now. Two afternoons ago she’d been Elspeth. She knew neither, had never even seen Mr Gorragher have a visitor, except for Father Doran to swill some of the old man’s dreadful poteen stuff.

‘Least said soonest mended,’ she said, coming under his outstuck feet.

‘That’s what everybody said in the parish. I don’t know. I started to watch the fillum but couldn’t go on with it. Blothey died soon after. He couldn’t walk.’

‘God rest him.’

‘I wondered after, when the fighting ended and we came back and I got a medal, a real decoration, not just a dinner gong like they called the routine issue, why they didn’t know Blothey died when the Christian Brother – Patrick, spelt the old way, not this new showy way – shoved his head through the staircase railings and twisted so he started wailing and died.’

‘They didn’t know.’

Magda said all these standard replies in a comforting kind of voice so it would ease the old man, who would often get agitated when he spoke of these things. There was a terrible story of a well and somebody shoved down there that was particularly frightening. Ding, dong, dell, like in some children’s rhyme they sang on RTE. Odd, though, it was the food that got her most. She sometimes found herself weeping for no reason, because what was she crying for?

‘Nobody knows unless you tell them.’

‘Well, they wouldn’t.’

‘I should have gone to the lady who was making the fillums. She had real cameras and everything.’

Did Lucy keep on falling because Magda didn’t tell anybody? Was that what he was saying? But she had never ever told anybody, except God and He knew anyway. The question was, if she went and told…told who, though? If she did, would Lucy then stop falling, all night long in Magda’s dreams, just like that? Magda knew she wouldn’t. Magda would have got herself out of trouble, a responsibility that she owed to Lucy, not herself, especially after what Magda had done the night Lucy died.

No, she had to rescue her dead friend without help from anybody. That’s what the deal was. A deal with God Almighty, no less. A promise was a promise. In doing that, Magda would rescue herself from the pit of Hellfire.

‘My hand was turned wrong at the wrist.’

And here old Mr Gorragher would always hold out his left hand like an offer. He would keep it there held out, though he was practically blind and couldn’t see a thing any more, simply waiting for Magda or somebody to take hold of it.

‘Go on, test it. There’s a bone missing, see?’

And Magda had to press her fingers round the old man’s wrist, feeling the bones, though what was there to feel in an old man’s wrist? Except where there should have been a kind of a knob sticking out, there wasn’t.

‘The army took me in spite of that, and they said it wouldn’t matter. I should be a driver, they said. But we were in uniform and learnt shooting and then we were off overseas. The fighting began and nobody worried any more about my old wrist being a bone short. I was taken prisoner just like the rest of the lads.’

He sounded so proud.

‘No driving, then?’

‘No driving. Me and Lanky went through the war together. We got taken up by a unit of the Duke of Wellington’s, noisy load of sods they were. Me and Lanky got captured. They suddenly came one day. The enemy guards cleared off. We were taken back. Know what?’

Magda had finished her cleaning and started winding up the flex.

‘No. What?’ though she already knew. There were only slight variations in the story. Some others did vary, though. The old ladies were the most consistent, never varied a single phrase or a word out of true, like a poem learnt in school.

‘They kitted us all up. We had hardly a stitch left from the prisoner-of-war camp. We went through some Yanks, a whole battalion. They stood watching us march through, just silent, rows of them. They looked like giants and fat and tall. They hardly spoke a word, but one said, “Jeez, Tommy, you alive under that thar skin?” And his mate said, “Never seed anybody that thin in ma laaaf, man.” I didn’t even know them Yanks spoke English like us till then.’

BOOK: Bad Girl Magdalene
5.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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