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Authors: Jonathan Gash

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BOOK: Bad Girl Magdalene
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‘I knew his name, once.’


Magda felt resentment against educated folk. They could read, have whole sentences they might say at times like this so the man would be pleased. If she had the letters and the writing clear in her mind, her words would soothe the man and he would be made well, which only went to show how fine it was for girls who were made educated and how hard it was for those who weren’t. Times like this she almost hated educated girls, trying to be better than God made them and mimicking the English.

‘He was but a lad when I caught him.’

‘You caught him,’ she said, soothing away, the best voice she could manage.

After a time he said, ‘He was on the town hall windows. Broke one.’

‘Broke it, y’say.’

‘Broke it. We took him in, me and Gallagher. You don’t know Gallagher. He was from Ballybrack. Had two sisters and a brother who played in the hurling.’

‘Ah, the hurling team.’

‘Because he broke the window, they sent him to the Maltebior.’

‘Ah, there.’ She felt blank.

‘The fishing school. It’s in Sors.’

‘Sors.’ She’d heard tales of a terrible place by that name, a place of suffering children.

‘He was a lad of seven, maybe eight, and he’d broken a window.’

Magda had never heard of it, thanks be to God from the way Bernard was staring, with firelight setting his gaze glinting like he was seeing some hellhound.

‘He can’t be more than twenty-one now, mebbe twenty-two. He’s a broken man, Magda. He looks like to die.’

‘God help the poor soul.’

‘He walked stooped, hands in his pockets, like wanting to beg but hadn’t a hope of getting a copper from any passing soul.’

‘What a shame.’ Magda could keep this up all day long, and night too if she had to, lacking anything else for the man.

‘He didn’t recognise me, thank God.’

‘Ah, he didn’t.’

‘He didn’t look, either. He just saw my uniform.’

‘Ah, your uniform.’

‘He shrank away, Magda. Crossed to the other side of the street. He looked hardly able to walk.’

‘Poor man.’

‘He’d drink taken. His trousers were stained, like he slept in his clothes. And looked a hundred years old.’

‘God help the man.’

‘Sure, Magda.’ Bernard stood and straightened. ‘God help the man, for sure as death we didn’t. I didn’t. The magistrates didn’t. The Church didn’t. And they didn’t at Maltebior.’

Magda knew she should have asked (if he was different somehow or, maybe to the point,
was) why he didn’t call after the disturbing man in that street who seemed to have been made such a wreck. She might have said, ‘Oh, bonnie, why for goodness’ sake did you not think to perhaps invite him round to your house for afternoon tea, or convey him to your club at St Stephens Green, perchance?’ like they did in the grand TV stories she was addicted to and which she couldn’t ever get enough of during the nights she stayed awake with her tiny TV set watching black-and-white reruns to stay awake so she needn’t dream of Lucy forever falling. But Bernard would have thought she had taken leave of her senses, which she would have, to talk to him like that. And anyhow in those stories the gentlemen were always called Sir Willoughby Maltravers or something, and she would be Mistress Euterpe Devonish-Fanshaw with servants and carriages and all and visiting squires who left cards on silver trays carried by servants.

No, that kind of talk was not for her, nor for Bernard. Not because, she instinctively understood, we are Irish in Dublin, but because things come from the past in each of their lives.
Like, Magda knew, her friend Lucy, and you didn’t have the right to say things out loud.

This explained the fault of Eire itself, the green sod where all that was natural and holy lay. Eire’s great pretence was that dark events were in the past. If there was trouble with the Taoiseach’s rivals in the Dail, then it was the fault of some famine long gone. Everybody knew that. The greater the traffic hazards, it was the fault of the English who’d left streets deliberately tangled so they always got in a stew round Trinity College and caused horrific road accidents. If an Irish horse lost in the Grand National, why, some royal duke in England had nobbled the poor beast so it fell at the last fence before the run-in, despite fervent prayers for its success at the Cathedral in Liverpool. Past events lurked. All were evil. Blame elsewhere had to be found, logic as ever was, in politics everybody could talk of safe and sound and know they would get agreed with.

She herself looked straight into the fire. Sometimes, if he wasn’t sorrowing, she would take out a breast and put it to his mouth and he would chomp on it quite like a barn, poor lamb, and he would say nothing until afterwards when he’d give her a curt thanks and get up and check his appearance once more. Not vanity, understand, just checking.

He left soon after that, and Magda knew the trouble, whatever had caused it, was over and Bernard would be right as rain. She felt so relieved. People had tramlines to guide their behaviour, and that was that. Stay in them old tram rails, you went in the right direction and life stayed fine. She decided she might say a prayer for Bernard maybe about teatime, before she had to get ready to go to work at the St Cosmo Care Home. There was still time for a bath, though she hated washing man-scent off her. Its possession was a secret she carried about for
the rest of the day, and she knew she wore that knowing smile that had the merit of irritating her friend Oonagh from Armagh, who was a little older than Magda but not half the experience, having been fostered out to an aunt when she was ten and raised like a good Christian. That had undoubted merit, but didn’t get the chance to irritate and madden friends the way a more varied life could.

The old folks home was called the St Cosmo Care Home for the Elderly. Magda had worked there, not since she’d left the Magdalenes, but as a result of meeting Faith. It was when Faith O’Banyon came looking for a job after failing the nursing course at the hospital. Magda had been cleaning the ladies’ toilets and Faith had come in. It changed Magda’s life.

Faith was irreverent. She’d been doing her hair after complaining about the state of the loos. It was one of the many extra jobs Magda did at the paper-packing firm where she was sent as an out-worker among the older girls at the Magdalenes, who’d all finished their schooling and had to go out to work from there.

‘Who’s supposed to do these loos out?’ Faith demanded on that fateful day that changed Magda’s whole life. The paper factory was noisy. Faith had to shout.

‘Me,’ Magda remembered bleating in a panic.

‘There’s no loo paper.’

‘I’ll get some!’ Magda rushed to get the cupboard door open.

She straightened to find Faith standing watching her, cool as a cucumber.

‘What’s the matter with you, for God’s sake?’

‘Nothing! Please don’t tell!’

But there was loo paper still in the loo Faith had just used, only not very much left on the roll.

‘Look at the state of you, girl!’

Faith let Magda scurry past. Once inside the loo Magda didn’t know what to do with the new roll, because there was still a bit on the old roll and there was never a place to put the new one.

‘Only we’re not allowed.’ Magda was close to tears. This was bound to get back to the nuns, and Sister Philomena would have her walloped sure as God made everything.

‘It doesn’t matter.’

‘They’ll get angry. Please don’t complain.’

‘All right,’ Faith said, though Magda didn’t know she was Faith back then, her being a stranger and just calling in.

‘Oh, thank you, thank you.’

Faith stayed still, observing Magda’s dilemma over the toilet paper, and said, cool, ‘Are you that scared?’

‘No!’ Magda’s voice rose almost to a shriek. She glanced guiltily at the door and said in a whisper, ‘No, no. I’m sorry for doing wrong.’

‘What’s your name?’

‘Magda. Magdalene really.’

‘Last name?’

‘I have no last name. They say I’m Finnan, because I was taken in from somewhere by there.’

‘Don’t you know?’

‘Not really. I was Six-One at school in the Magdalenes.’

‘Six-One, Magda Finnan?’


‘You work here?’

‘It’s where I…’ Magda’s problem was words. That was why she longed to read but couldn’t. She didn’t want to tell this new worker from outside anything at all, from shame. All the time she was trying out new words, every moment of her time. But Faith’s question needed answering. Where I belong? Where I live? Where I stay? Where I am? ‘Here,’ she finished lamely.


‘Is it to tell on me?’

And Faith smiled. It was so lovely. ‘No, Magda. Not to tell. I never tell. Just to remember your name, OK?’

‘What for?’

Magda stared at this apparition, knowing she would be trying to recall every stitch the girl wore, every turn of the head, every bit of her features and how she walked and the things she said, the minute she’d gone. Magda was always like this, for whoever she saw might even be some relative, and she had had none right from the minute she was born and taken to the Magdalenes.

‘Nothing at all, Magda Finnan. Just friendly.’

And Faith left. Magda was so baffled by the interlude that she actually went back into the loo Faith had used and stared at the place as if it had changed somehow, or thinking it might be different from all the other cubicles in the place. It was as clean as Magda could make it. She was always good at cleaning, always had been, had to be because of the domestic supervisor, Sister Philomena, who got reports back from the factory.

That was how Magda met Faith O’Banyon. And three weeks later a letter came from Sister Stephanie, supervisor of the St Cosmo Care Home for the Elderly, and on the recommendation of ex-Nurse Faith O’Banyon, who suddenly was
transformed from stranger into long-lost cousin, Magda Finnan was changed from part-time paper-packer in paid employment to paid employee of the St Cosmo Care Home for the Elderly. It was to be on probationary trial. Magda had to get Faith to read it out to her, and tell her the address and how to get there.

The switch was an ordeal because Magda had no idea what was happening. At first she thought it was a punishment. She couldn’t get the hang of the special instructions given her by Sister Superior when she went on trial. It was only when Faith explained she was to stay free and lodge in a nearby block of bed-sits, where she would have her own special place all to herself, that she stopped thinking of the change as a dream.

Two months later, when the probationary period had expired, Magda realised for the first time she was free.

Life changed for ever. She got registered as a legitimate employee and was paid, working a month in hand as Faith called it.

Faith was irreverent, and tried to get Magda to be the same. They kept up the falsehood of being cousins, but that business went by the board after a while and Faith told Magda to forget it, because it had only been a trick to spring Magda. Faith was full of slang words, ‘spring’ being one, meaning to cheat people and get away if you didn’t like them. Faith left soon after, never to be seen again. ‘Going to England,’ she said. ‘I’ve had enough of getting told off.’ She said ta-ta, and went.

When she realised, Magda wept for three nights running, for she’d never had a relative all to herself before, and now she was back to being on her own without another living soul.

It was there, after a while, that she met Bernard.


It was terrible busy when Magda got on duty.

She had difficulty with her housemaid’s cap. So much frill and every edge to be ironed, like the hems in petticoats that needed ironing really flat though never to be seen by mortal eye, of course, because if it wasn’t ironed everything sagged and didn’t lie true. Sister Stephanie – of whom Magda was mortal scared, she having once supervised the Magdalene Sisters of the Third Order Regular, where Magda had been worked and taught over in Sandyhills – always insisted on everybody being properly turned out, which only went to show rumours spoke true.

Other girls tried continually to get away with it and skimped on the ironing, only to be found out and given a hard time by Sister Stephanie. And one girl in particular, a Mrs MacLehose, who had five children, said in quiet asides to Magda, ‘and no more of them children, thank God, knowing what I know now,’ which was most terrible indeed and might surely send her down the chute to Hell when she died, God rest the poor screaming soul heading for eternal damnation. Worse, when discovered talking like this and Sister Stephanie standing there like the wrath of God with her hands tucked inside the folds of her sleeves about to deliver rebukes that would freeze the heart of Cromwell himself, Mrs MacLehose would sniff and say, ‘Sister, I’m a busy woman and I’ve work to get on with, so if you’ve quite finished I can earn me merit with the Good Lord and mebbe store up some indulgences with Him, seeing I do my very best and me with my arthritis and all that comes from slaving for my children.’ And, while the whole world froze in horror at such sledging right back into the very face of the staff supervisor nun, Mrs MacLehose would say, casual as you like, to somebody standing like Lot’s Wife in the Bible
(who turned into a block of salt when she looked back at Sodom and Gomorrah being crushed under fire raining down from Heaven), ‘Would you pass that next pile, Magda, so I can get on instead of standing here all day dreaming.’ And should Magda or whoever it was not move fast enough, she would give out a rebuke of her own, even in such a terrible plight: ‘Well, girl? Will you help instead of standing there with your two arms the one length?’ And that would set everybody scurrying and Sister Stephanie would march away with her lips set in that thin line that meant somebody soon was going to catch it. It was always somebody else, never Mrs Jenny MacLehose.


And that evening after dinner, Magda stole a tablet, to help herself kill the priest. Not that Father Doran doubtless had some good in him somewhere, for who could judge another person? It was written in the Good Book, if you could read, that you hadn’t to judge somebody ‘unless ye yourself be judged’ or something that way on.

Once she got started, Magda stole the tablets slightly different every time because you couldn’t be too careful. This was her way:

Old Mrs Borru had to take two little white tablets each day, and everybody in the whole wide world knew it was so, like some rule St Benedict himself had laid down. You heard old people always saying to each other through the livelong day, ‘Is it time Elsie had her tablet now?’ and somebody else would say, ‘Elsie? No, not yet. That comes at eight o’clock after supper.’ And somebody would add, ‘She took this morning’s one because I was there and that man we all like was reading the news.’ And then everybody would go on about who liked
the weatherman on RTE and who hated that girl who forever was showing off with her posturing and smiling so fetchingly in front of the TV weather map of rain over the Irish Sea and saying how the ferries from Stranraer were going to be delayed again. In fact, Magda too hated that weather girl, but there you go, because hate was a sin and you had to do penance for a venial sin, venial being only small, because the pretty weather girl really was horrid and thought too much of herself.

Back to the tablets. They were little and white and mortal strong and came in a little dark bottle. There was a theory that dark-bottle pills and potions stayed effective, that in transparent glass they degenerated and lost strength. Sister Stephanie said so.

That particular day, old Mrs Borru spilt the tablets, a few lying white and shining on the carpet. Magda had already hoovered.

‘Goodness, Mrs Borru. You’ve dropped your tablets,’ Magda said.

‘What, my dear?’

The old lady could hardly see but spent her days watching RTE. Whatever was on did for her, even football and those endless snooker games and athletics. She even hummed along to any old music, even if it was from radio programmes in the next room. Sometimes she seemed deaf, other times she had hearing like a bat.

‘Your tablets. I must call one of the nurses.’

Magda rushed to find Nurse Maynooth, who was on duty that particular day, but of course Murphy’s Law struck and she was nowhere to be found, so it was Magda herself who scraped the tablets up and put them back in the bottle, all the time worrying herself stupid that they had no power in them
now they’d been dirtied on the carpet, though she herself had vacuumed exactly that spot earlier. I mean, she argued with herself, what if the tablets lost their vigour from touching the Wilton pile? It might be so. And how like the English to make a fine carpet that had a secret power of sucking the tablets’ force out instead of leaving them strong as ever.

‘No need for that, dear.’

Mrs Borru hadn’t the faintest notion who Magda was. She said the same thing to the removal men when they’d had to take away one of the old beds that kept falling through. Mrs Borru thought one of the men was her husband and tried telling him off to bring his van round to the side door and take the bed out through the kitchen, though of course the poor man didn’t have a van at all and wasn’t her husband.

‘Will the tablets be all right still, Mrs Borru?’

‘Leave off your worry, dear. It doesn’t do, a girl young as you.’

Which was really kind of Mrs Borru. And maybe secretly she too was scared of the nurses or the nuns raising a fuss and telling her off. So that day Magda let the matter go, yet anxiously waited for the nurses or the nuns to come round counting everybody’s tablets and, finding one or two missing, blame Magda saying she’d spilt them and had left Mrs Borru to take the blame.

She later told Sheilagh, who was almost as casual as Faith, because Sheilagh truly was going to be a nurse, trained and registered, when she got her exams, her father (a real live father) being an accountant with a head full of the numbers. And Sheilagh laughed.

‘You are a hoot, Magda,’ she said. ‘Dear God in Heaven. Who has time to go counting tablets already in bottles with the
pharmacy stamp already there on the side with all them initials and letters after their name?’

‘What if there’s one lost, though, Sheilagh?’

‘Then it gets sucked up in your hoover machine, and gets thrown into the Pit of Despond.’

Magda didn’t know what the Pit of Despond was, and wondered if she ought to search in the mounds of dust and rubbish to look for Mrs Borru’s tablet. She learnt, asking Sister Stephanie as casual as you like about it, that it was a place like Hell that an English Protestant called Bunyan once wrote about and not to bother her head. Sister Stephanie was displeased with Sheilagh for mentioning that to Magda because many girls were impressionable. The upshot was, Magda was mighty relieved and thankful there would be no counting of tablets or speculating what if one tablet got itself missing.

Which set Magda wondering, because on the bottle there was said to be a stark warning that nobody, nobody, was to take the tablets except as prescribed by a doctor. They were poison. Sheilagh said warnings were on every medicine bottle, and that was what the letters meant.

Now, poison set Magda thinking of Lucy, and the murder she had to be doing fairly soon.

The one thing Magda remembered was, there was a time when Lucy hadn’t fallen at all. They were both back there in St Joseph’s at Sandyhills, in the Magdalenes, and it hadn’t yet happened.

Part of Magda’s sorrow and determination to kill Father Doran came from the feeling that, if God Almighty Himself, or maybe some fairy, like in those pantomimes at Christmas that Magda had seen on RTE TV (men actors dressed as old women and girls dressed as young men and swaggering and talking like
they were saying poetry and everybody laughing and shouting back from the audience) offered Magda the chance of saving Lucy from falling by putting the clock back to those times when Magda and everybody was still back there in the Magdalenes, Magda knew she would kneel and say, ‘Thanks, God, for the offer, but I could never go back there in a million years ever again, so ta, but no. I accept that Lucy would stop falling if You put the clock back, but I couldn’t bear it. In fact, I’d be the one to start myself falling down the centre of a massive stairwell to certain death and burning for ever in Hellfire, sure as You made apples.’

BOOK: Bad Girl Magdalene
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