Authors: Jonathan Gash
So Magda was a murderess in her heart even before she recognised Father Doran saying Mass that day in St Saviour’s Church, for she would never live her horrible childhood over again, not even in order to save Lucy dying over and over the long nights through. So it was right that she, Magdalene Finnan, if that was her name, should be punished by them terrible dreams.
And in the next spell of afternoon shift of duty at the St Cosmo, Magda pinched a tablet from the brown bottle and stored it in a paper tissue in her pinny pocket, as if it was no more than a paper handkerchief she intended to use for hygiene around the old folks, in case she sneezed.
She kept it wrapped for darkness in an old Bisto Gravy bottle, well washed and dried in the oven at the St Cosmo kitchen, so as not to wash out any of the poison power in the tablet. It stayed back in her bed-sit like it was simply an empty gravy bottle, and became a slowly growing store of poisonous white tablets over the weeks.
By the time she made sure it truly was Father Doran by going to sit at the front in St Saviour’s, she had several
tablets. Now she was certain. Tomorrow, she vowed to steal another one.
She became skilled at the art. She made sure she called Nurse Maynooth to see next time Mrs Borru spilt her tablet bottle over the side of her bed. It was during a TV Old Tyme Music Hall from Leeds in England, where they sang and all dressed up in old time clothes like in the time of Queen Victoria, bad cess to the country that was condemned to perpetual excommunication by the Holy Father himself. Magda pointed out to Nurse Maynooth that the old lady seemed to have fewer tablets than there had been this very morning.
Magda didn’t tell it in confession, not all of it. She simply said she had been careless with the tablets of some old folk where she worked, though she made sure she hoovered everywhere ‘after having a careful look under the beds and everywhere,’ and the priest always gave her three Hail Marys and one Our Father for penance. That was as far as Magda ever got of a Saturday when she confessed about the gathering of poison tablets ready to kill Father Doran. Indeed, Magda had a sense of fair play so strong that she once went to Father Doran to confess that she had ‘tried to make sure that the old people’s tablets were always counted exactly right,’ adding she wasn’t sure for they sometimes spilt them.
He reassured her, which was really kind. Magda was careful, however, not to push her luck by going to him for confession every Saturday, no. She went instead to Father Culkin and even Father Duddy, who scared her stiff with his black swarthy hair and his loud voice, and whose black hair even seemed to grow down to his finger nails like a gorilla’s.
‘You’ll turn to stone standing there, Magda,’ Sister Francesca said crossly one day after Magda had stolen another tablet,
successfully, she thought, until much later after she’d done the deed, ‘when I want you to be scouring the kitchen swill out for the refuse collectors.’
‘I’m sorry, Sister Francesca.’
‘Then get on instead of being sorry and you won’t need to,’ Sister Francesca gave back, sharper than ever that day, though usually she never gave much blame around. ‘There’s one old lady worse than ever, and her husband’s come in sicker than herself tonight.’
A grand opportunity came to take more than one poison tablet from another old folk’s bottles three days later. It was easy. Magda pretended to count out the whole bottle of white tablets (though she couldn’t be sure it was the same poison as the little white things she had a store of in the Bisto Gravy bottle back in her place) after a lady died. She counted the tablets, all three sorts, out with utmost care after Nurse Maynooth and Mrs Jenny MacLehose had been told by Sister Stephanie to clear out the bedside cupboard because they were about to perform the last offices and wash the body. She couldn’t do the counting, of course, just pretended.
She left the small bottles, all three in a row, on the bedside locker, and Nurse Maynooth said well done and even Sister Stephanie said it was good to see one of the girls being so careful, as she took the bottles of tablets away.
And Magda saw her later washing the tablets, and one small bottle of sticky cough medicine from the stock cupboard, down the sluice sink without even counting any or measuring the sticky cough medicine, which was a grand relief because it meant Magda’s prayers were being answered so far. This was wondrous because it meant that one or even two tablets from any of the old people’s bottles would not be missed, most probably.
So Magda’s store in her room hidden behind her one-grill Baby Belling cooker, went up gradually.
Lucy kept falling during the nightmare, and it was all Magda’s fault because she was to blame.
She sometimes imagined that same questioning, with God saying, ‘Magdalene Finnan, if that’s your name, what if I, in My infinite mercy, allowed the clocks to go back to the time before Lucy fell to her death? How about it? What would you say? Yes or no?’
And Magda knew she would answer, ‘No, thanks, Lord God. I couldn’t bear to go back among the Magdalenes, not even for that.’
‘You sure, Six-One?’
‘Yes, Lord God. I’m so ashamed. I’m so sorry, Lord God, but I’m not up to much. Forgive me, I pray.’
‘Then it’s down to you that Lucy, your friend, keeps falling in that old nightmare. Just you remember that, OK?’
‘Yes, Lord God,’ Magda in this particular dream kept saying back, kneeling and keeping her head and eyes cast down so she didn’t stare Him in the Face and see His agony at her backsliding nature.
It was all the more piteous when she kept remembering how God had died on the Cross for her sins, and here she was adding to things and making it all worse.
‘Yes, Nurse Maynooth,’ she said again to something, and got down to cleaning the sluice.
The priest came that evening to give Extreme Unction to a dead old folk, and the whole of the St Cosmo was deathly quiet. The old people were shut in and kept themselves quiet and sombre as if working out who was oldest and who was next.
The store of tablets, by innocent planning and meticulous taking of chances, grew until finally Magda had almost plenty of little white tablets, plus a few pinkish larger ones, and a variety of small coloured oval jobs. And she knew it would soon be time to judge when she was ready. In a way it was sad. In another way, it wasn’t anything of the kind.
The first time Magda did it with Bernard the Garda was the time he saw her back to her room in the girls’ resident block the day an old man called Mr Brannigan died. He bled from his mouth and Magda had the awful task of cleaning up the mess. There was blood everywhere, and his sheets and blankets were soaked dark brown, very little of it looking like the red of her month and that the cowboys and Red Indians shed once they got shot in the chest in the westerns Magda loved on the night TV. Only once had she been to the Gem Cinema on Connaught Road down beyond the Blackrock bus stop, but it smelt musty and she was troubled by so many people.
Mr Brannigan had been a soldier, very brave some people were saying after he passed on, in the wars when he’d gone fighting. He had scars on his chest. Mrs Borru turned lucid for an hour or two after hearing of Mr Brannigan’s death and smiled to herself and began to tell how, to Magda’s horror and the scandal of God’s ears should He be listening, which of course He would be, Mr Brannigan and she, Mrs Borru, had been kind to each other in the lantern hours when the place was asleep.
‘When who was asleep?’ Magda had asked.
‘Everybody, silly girl.’
‘Kind? What about?’
‘Solace, silly. A man needs solace, whatever his years. It’s what women are for, even in this place.’
‘What place, Mrs Borru?’
‘This place. Don’t you listen? You’ll do bad at school, cloth ears you have, never listening to a word anybody says.’
‘Kind, eh?’ Magda remembered saying that fateful day when Mr Brannigan died. ‘That must have been nice.’
‘It was,’ Mrs Borru said, dreamy and smiling distantly at the far wall where the Sacred Heart was in a coloured effigy showing His Heart to the cruel sinful world to demonstrate how hurt it was when people were sinful. ‘He liked my knickers off and on the floor by the draining board in the kitchen.’
Magda thought she misunderstood. ‘Your what?’
‘He was a one for breasts. He loved bosoms, did old Jim Brannigan. He was a gay old stick.’
Magda finally began to understand and was struck with alarm hearing this.
‘He was slow – being on them tablets they give old men whose blood pressure goes up. That and being old.’ Mrs Borru frowned at the far wall and the holy effigy. ‘Or is it down? Do you know?’
‘Know what?’ Magda said, almost shouting out the question, desperate for the next query from the old dear to be something innocent, like what was for tea and could she have Earl Grey or maybe the impossible Lady Grey tea instead. Or maybe asked for a buttered crumpet for a change, instead of the Battenberg they had on Thursdays.
‘Them tablets. Though I heard Mrs O’Brien in that end ward, with the leg, has the same coloured tablet as Mr Brannigan, so maybe it doesn’t count whether you are man or woman.’
‘I don’t know,’ Magda yelped, frantic at what was coming out.
She had been sent to make sure Mrs Borru had been to the loo so she had to stay and find out. The commode hadn’t even been moved since the morning, so there was no way to tell unless Magda went round the entire place – somebody said all sixty-five of them inmates, but Magda couldn’t count so didn’t know – asking if Mrs Borru had been to the loo today and been cleaned afterwards. She had to do her job right, or she might get sent back to kneeling and scrubbing and getting walloped at the Magdalenes amid those girls with the white faces where Lucy had done her first fall. Magda had only been a little girl back then, not nineteen.
‘Mr Brannigan was a right lad.’ Mrs Borru went back into her dreamy mode. ‘The first time we did it, we did it right here in this bed. He said I was brilliant.’
‘He said…’ Magda tried faintly.
‘He said my arse was sweet as a nut.’
‘I think there’s two sorts of men, don’t you?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘You’ll learn, girl.’
Magda tried not to ask the question but was drawn in despite herself. For some reason she thought of Chaucer, which she’d heard of when, unlettered as she was, she’d listened to the lettered girls in the Magdalenes talking after collecting the papers for the girls’ exam. One girl had said, ‘Just our luck, eh?’
and told Magda the notices said
Magda forever associated Chaucer, whoever or whatever he or it was, with evil thoughts, the sort you let in if you weren’t determined when you woke suddenly in the nights. Sometimes, she couldn’t sleep and wondered why she was this shape, and what God in His infinite wisdom thought He was playing at.
‘There’s the man who’s mesmerised by bosoms. And there’s the man who can’t stop being mesmerised by legs and bottoms. Mr Brannigan was fascinated by breasts. You know what I think, girl?’
‘No,’ Magda said, thinking, but Mr Brannigan’s barely yet cold with pennies on his eyes in the next room’s third alcove with his dinner going cold on the bed table.
It was sinful to talk like this. In fact, Magda knew it was dire sin to even think these things, and probably even worse in the scale of everything to listen to this old bat rabbiting on about how she and Mr Brannigan,
had done shameful and shameless things to each other in the candle hours right here in the St Cosmo Care Home for the Elderly.
‘It’s only the way men start off with you that’s the main point.’
off, I mean.’
?’ Magda almost ran but felt transfixed.
‘They all have to start by getting in you, is the truth. It’s the way they are. Can’t help themselves. You know what my Auntie Winnie used to tell me?’
‘She said, more than once, “It’s for men to try, and women to deny.” What d’you think of that?’
Magda almost repeated it but caught herself in time.
‘She was a daft old biddie who knew no better. She had an unhappy life, did Auntie Winnie. Her husband ran off with a girl who worked the boats. I don’t know what it means to this day.’
The old lady smiled at the Sacred Heart bold as brass, straight at the figure of Our Lord doing His suffering and everything on the wall.
‘What what means?’
‘You’re not listening. Worked the boats. I’ve told you twice, her husband ran off with a girl who worked the boats.’ And old Mrs Borru gave Magda an absolutely beatific smile. ‘Doesn’t it sound romantic? She
. It makes me think of the Far East in hot climes, like in those sailing poems we used to learn at school. We were made to stand up and recite Masefield and Wordsworth and Coleridge.’
The old lady was rambling now, so perhaps it was becoming less sinful with each passing minute. Magda decided to stay, but was disappointed the talk had come down to poems when it had been horrid but fascinating.
‘Coleridge.’ Mrs Borru smiled. ‘I loved the ones about romance. Coleridge was a strange stick, right enough, with more strings to his bow than a man ought.’
‘Was he?’ Magda knew nobody by that name in the St Cosmo.
‘How does it go?
Isn’t that lovely?’
‘Lovely,’ Magda said guardedly, ready to say a swift Glory Be in case it wasn’t lovely at all but something truly foul.
‘I thought of a red leaf trying to dance when it was going to fall, just like all the rest.’
‘I see,’ Magda said, who didn’t.
‘Red was the colour you were forbidden when I was a girl,’ Mrs Borru said. ‘You got your legs smacked good and hard if you were seen in red knickers, or petticoats, or a dress. I always longed for red shoes, after reading that Coleridge poem.’
‘Did you get some?’ Magda asked, drawn in deep now despite the wicked side to the talk.
‘No, bless you. Different when I was married. It didn’t matter then because my husband bought me some. We’d gone to England. We lived over a shop and I got cast-offs and seconds from their stock, and one was a red woollen dress that hugged my shape. I went mad in that. I danced as often as dance I could.’ She giggled, a marvellously happy sound to Magda. She loved people to laugh, even old Mr Vennoshay whose teeth clacked when he had a good laugh if he’d forgotten his sticky stuff for his false plate.
‘I just told you. I danced for my husband in our flat and in our bedroom. Women forget they have a duty to their man, to please. That’s how you stay together. They forget that these days. It’s the way they get divorced.’
‘Don’t you read the papers?’
‘No,’ Magda said truthfully, because she hadn’t the lettering. Also, it seemed a tragic waste of money to go spending on newspapers with racing results and what the Taoiseach was on about in the Dail when everybody else talked of it all the time anyway.
‘I’ll miss Jim.’ The old lady’s eyes filled, to Magda’s consternation.
‘We all shall, Mrs Borru.’
‘I’ll miss him more than anybody, God’s truth. It’s comforting to have a man nearby, even though we’re too old to even see each other. I always kept an ear out to listen after Jim, how he was getting on, even after he went to sleep for good.’
‘A shame, God rest him.’
‘Don’t you just go saying that, girl. You mean it or don’t go saying it at all, d’you hear?’
‘Yes, Mrs Borru.’
‘He wore me out sometimes. He would take his time getting to the spillage. We never made a mess in the beds, did we? You didn’t notice any mess, did you, after we’d done it during the night?’
‘No,’ Magda said faintly. ‘I didn’t know.’
‘We did it once in the summer house. It was mortal hot. Jim was like a mad thing. I was frightened, like being a girl again, scared some nun would come along and send us out to St Andrew’s where the lunatic people all get sent when they’ve been up to no good.’
‘A dreadful risk.’ Magda imagined being sent to the mad house of St Andrew’s.
‘He had his thing out and I started on it like a crazy woman. It went everywhere, all over my clothes. You know what we did?’
‘I said I’d stumbled against the fountain, y’know, where the birds splash, that bird bath? It wasn’t even filled, so I had to get a watering can from the gardener’s and fill it in the little pool and carry water to the bird bath then we could pretend I’d stumbled and got myself wet.’
‘I remember washing your dress, Mrs Borru.’
‘I know. That’s why I’m telling you.’
‘I’d best get on, Mrs Borru.’
Suddenly the old dear’s eyes took on a wicked glint.
‘Here,’ she said, lowering her voice. ‘Are you the girl who pinches my tablets?’
‘What?’ Magda paled.
‘You’re the girl who pinches my tablets.’
‘No. I mean…’
‘Shhhhh,’ Mrs Borru said, and closed her eyes smiling.
That was the day Magda cleaned up after poor Mr Brannigan, and got took home by Bernard after a new old man was brought in. Magda let Bernard do the thing to her. She was being compassionate to a kind man, which was what God intended, same as Mrs Borru to old Mr Brannigan. It was how Bernard began it regular, usually twice a week but sometimes more often unless he had duty when there was racing at the Fairyhouse or Leopardstown.
She was shaking, so shocked was she, when the new man, who was seventy-two and riddled with lice and fleas and Heaven-knows-what, had to be cleaned by the two-blanket method and sundry lotions poured on the festering sores that blotched his skin. The Garda Siobhana brought him because he was going for trial after a fight in Connelly Station.
That was how Sister Stephanie said the Gardai were to take Magda home afterwards, as a kindness, seeing she’d worked six hours extra without overtime money, because there was never that at the St Cosmo. And the Gardai were three hours over their own time, so Bernard said he’d come back on his way after signing off in the police station, which he did. And he ran Magda to her girls’ resident block, and saw her up to her door, and when Mrs Shaughnessy saw it was the Gardai she
sank back into her doorway further along the landing. Magda explained to the old toot that there had been things going on at the Home today which made it all right.
Then she made some tea and Bernard sat down, and Magda said she’d scramble some eggs and would Bernard be wanting some. He said yes that would be grand. And she was pleased because she had cleaned up in the sluice at the Home, so she was able to let him see her wash her hands before she buttered some bread while the eggs were doing. The bread was soda bread that was too friable for making sandwiches, like most of the old men wanted to eat their scrambled eggs, but she was glad when Bernard said it didn’t matter one bit, and made thick sandwiches with two slices of soda bread on each side, larded with Kerry Gold and hang the cost.
She was glad too he liked brown sauce instead of the red tomato sauce, and that reminded her of the red dress that Mrs Borru said she’d worn while dancing for her husband and spouting the poetry about the red leaf dancing, the last of its clan. That made Magda feel she too had rights in certain things and smiled across at the eating man.
He was stout and thick, head and neck like a bull’s, with hands that seemed too soft for most men. She felt embarrassed letting him see her bold as brass and natural as anything eating away, quite like they were man and wife, which was something beyond normal how-de-do. But still she had her eggs but didn’t of course make butties from it, which wasn’t quite proper. Ladies in the old TV pictures they showed during the night didn’t eat like that.
And then he took hold of her waist when she passed to get fresh hot water for the teapot, it being sensible to offer the starving hard-worked man another cup before his long drive
home. It wasn’t as far as all that, though Howth seemed quite a distance if you thought, not quite as far as Killiney where she’d always hoped one day to live close by the little railway. She’d been there once, too far back ever to remember why and who with.