Authors: Jonathan Gash
She was astonished to feel him underneath her – underneath, which was a terrible word when you thought about it,
where everything was, though designed by God in His infinite wisdom, and
there where it all happened.
And he put his hands, which seemed larger by the minute, on her leg and felt the skin quite roughly through her skirt which made her dizzy. Then he pushed his hand beneath her skirt onto her legs and felt that she had no stockings on or tights – she hated tights because they were so expensive. Stockings were more of a problem in the morning to get them straight with all that twisting, and especially difficult when there was only a small mirror on the mantelshelf to see yourself in.
And he said, ‘Is this all right?’ and she said, ‘Yes,’ because why wasn’t it if Mrs Borru and old Mr Jim Brannigan did it, the last time six weeks before when Mr Jim still had a few weeks to go before meeting his Maker? And she let Bernard do it, and was pleased feeling she had got away with something like murder.
And the girl Lucy fell, not just once but twice, while Magda was under Bernard’s colossal weight. She groaned ‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph’ and tried to inhale. It was all right because he shifted just slightly enough for her to get her breathing going by one long inhalation, so she managed.
He took his time about finishing, and she waited like a dutiful wife should while he worked away and she thought, I’ll have fine sets of bruises in the morning, that’s for sure, but
nobody will see them down there on the inside of my thighs. And they must be what Mrs MacLehose called her medals, when Magda had exclaimed once about the bruises on her upper arms, several blotched blue dabs, and Mrs MacLehose smiled while she said it and another girl laughed further along with the tea trolley when she overheard the exchange. And Magda had asked, what did that mean, what sort of medals? Both laughed and another girl, who was forty if she was a day, had giggled all the way through dishing out tea to the old folks. Everybody, whatever age, were girls to nuns, like the whole world was made up of Magdalenes to them.
So this is where the medals came from, which was a truly shocking thought, that everybody was doing it and getting the giggles when it was talked of.
Magda wondered, when Bernard began to snore, still his weight crushing her almost flat, why it was that all the females were called girls. Everywhere in Dublin it was girls, girls, never women or ladies. The girls in the Magdalenes were as old as forty-six, one was, and still she was a girl who did the clearing up in the commercial laundry they ran, steaming night and day between the great vats. And the little children, five and upwards, were also girls. And girls it stayed, even at the old folks home, all the helpers and workers called girls. Except for the nuns, and the nurses like Nurse Maynooth and Nurse Tully.
And how come Mrs Borru said nothing but ‘Shhhh’ when she’d asked Magda about stealing the poison tablets from her? And then the old lady had slept peaceful like a babe.
Magda didn’t know how babes slept, never having seen one sleeping, not even when she was at the Magdalenes or after, but then she’d never had the chance. It must be brilliant, so lovely, to see one sleeping and know it was there just trusting
in you staying awake and keeping watch to keep away wolves from the fold or other dangers, or in case it woke and wanted something.
She nursed Bernard then, and gave him a breast just as he started to wake up, which made him like her own bab, and that was how their pattern began, and she hoped it would stay for ever and ever Amen, even unto the consummation of the world. She now knew it wouldn’t. A murder had to be got on with, or Lucy never would be able to stop falling to her death in that stairwell.
And Magda knew it would be her murdering of Father Doran that would give poor dead Lucy eternal rest, so it was a sworn Christian duty.
Magda’s first remembrance in Sandyhills, County Dublin, was suddenly being there and frightened. She learnt she was just coming up to five. From other girls who knew their birthdays, Magda knew she too must have a birthday, but didn’t know when it was. She had cried, because everybody else had one. What hers was, she had no notion. Counting birthdays was a problem from then on, especially as they all laughed at her because she couldn’t count or even learn her letters.
‘I once weighed four stone two pounds,’ a girl called Isabel said when Magda had been there so long that the snows had come round again.
Magda longed to weigh four stone two pounds too, but how did you get to know?
For a long time she asked other children how you found out, so badly wanting to weigh four stone two pounds that she prayed to Baby Jesus to make her that and not be different, and cried herself to sleep. She knew that, whatever her numbers turned out to be, they would never be four stone two because that would be too good to be true. After getting used to the
idea that everyone in the whole place was different, her wish would be simply silly. There were good things, and there were bad things. Being four stone two would be a privilege, and not for her.
More than once, she got into trouble looking about for stones that might be the ones that decided who weighed what. She tried working out this stone thing. At first she thought, being small, that it was something to do with the way you breathed. Good breathing, as near to Jesus’s method that you could manage, must give you this four-two mark. It was only when she started working in the kitchen for Mrs Rooney, scouring and fetching, that she learnt, and it gave her profound hope, that everything –
had a weight in it, so kind was God and so generous was Baby Jesus who’d heard her prayers and decided everything and everyone should weigh something. Maybe God’s kindness would mean she’d be four stone two?
Magda lived in hopes. She no longer needed to cry herself to sleep at night because her weight was out there somewhere just waiting. It was nothing to do with breathing, because vegetables didn’t breathe at all and they had weight, so good was Almighty God. Magda finally tried to do a deal with the Almighty. She would pray an extra prayer each night, a Hail Mary, because Mother Mary could wheedle when saints might not get very far. She would even settle for just four stone without the two.
Carrots didn’t breathe. Magda, with an older girl called Lucy, learnt this and other essential facts of life by carrying in vegetables from the delivery at the postern gate at the end of the walled yard. A man, big and whistling and slamming things and yelling at other people unseen out there in the street – all doubtless as terrified as Magda, who waited in the doorway to
come at a run when the delivery man had gone after knocking with his five thumps and starting up his motor and driving off – well he was the delivery man, same every Monday and Thursday. He had no name, and no nun ever came to check things because it was too early for nuns.
Magda and Lucy had to be there, waiting outside the kitchen door, by six o’clock when the nuns were being all holy and praying for the sins of the girls and other hard-line sinners – Sister Annuncion’s words for the girls in Magda’s class – in Holy Mass and the delivery man was due and Mrs Rooney hadn’t yet come to open the kitchen door. Their job, sworn to ‘loyal and holy duty’ (Sister St Paul’s oath they had to take when put on kitchen work) was to leave the baskets of vegetables and other provisions untouched (‘unsullied’ in Sister St Paul’s punishing oath) but bring them under the shelter of the doorway. At six-fifteen Mrs Rooney would open it from inside and stand there with the same bark, ‘Get them in here, then off with you.’
They would carry the baskets in, and then go back fast as legs could go, back to the toilets, trying to get chapped thighs and bottoms clean before hurrying to the gruel that was breakfast.
Each Monday and Thursday Magda and Lucy had a hard time telling the girls in whispers only and punishment by smacked legs to make you limp all day if you got caught talking, what they’d carried in when the little hatch by the postern gate was filled with heavy baskets and the delivery man’s engine had taken him, whistling and shouting about racehorses, off up the road to wherever it was.
The other girls didn’t believe them when they said they hadn’t eaten any of the provisions.
In vain Lucy and Magda swore they hadn’t stolen a single mouthful, and didn’t even know what was inside the baskets,
and in any case there was no chance of looking because the baskets were tacked with heavy canvas all the way round so nothing could go in or out. And Mrs Rooney saw the baskets lifted inside then sent them both off and didn’t even let them stay and see what food had arrived or, to Magda’s burning loss, what they weighed, because Mrs Rooney had a scales with big black weights marked in Imperial Pounds and Imperial Ounces, with crowns over those standy-out letters in the coal-black metal. So the weights were from English times, which meant maybe it was sinful to even want a weight of your own, possibly four stone two pounds if God was specially kind.
Still the other girls kept on accusing them of stealing. Lucy in particular always hotly denied stealing potatoes, which puzzled Magda because how did Lucy know there were potatoes in any basket? Magda had never even looked inside. She and Lucy had to take the empty baskets out after prayers before they went to sleep, putting them in a stack in the hatch so they could be lifted out by the delivery man next time he came. You had to do it that way or the man might see in and watch the nuns, which was a terrible crime that Sister St Paul said would deserve Hellfire for all eternity.
Magda asked Lucy, ready for rebuke, if that’s what her question deserved, ‘Lucy. How do you know there were potatoes in them baskets?’
‘They smell of them.’
Magda was astonished at this. Weights, and now smells? Potatoes
‘Do potatoes smell?’ she asked with timidity.
‘Course they do, daftie.’
‘Potatoes, of course.’
‘Does everything have a smell?’
‘Course it does. Carrots smell of carrots. Potatoes smell of potatoes, lettuces of themselves.’
‘Is it just them old vegetables?’
Lucy looked round so as not to be heard by anyone. They were in the laundry where, having small-girl jobs, they had to drag the empty linen skips into the yard. When they were older they might be allowed to work inside where it was steamy but warm and in out of the cold and the rain. Once you got wet there was no drying you until you dried in class, and like as not got told off there for wetting the benches with your wet clothes. The nuns had a terrible suspicion that the girls who stained the benches with damp had peed in their knickers, and peeing in knickers was the most terrible insult to the Order and thereby to Almighty God, who ‘detested filth in thought, word, and deed,’ as Sister St Paul put it.
This nun did a lot of hunting for transgressors. Two girls were always at it, peeing their knickers and getting blamed for every drop even of rain that clung to garments and skirts and the thin shawls the girls were given. Magda did what many girls did when they were in the yard and it came on to rain. Instead of covering themselves with their shawls, they would press into the entrance archway, and wrap their shawl round their middle. That way, the shawl would get a good soaking from the rain but the skirt would stay dry as near as could be, depending on the downpour. That way, they could take the shawl off when called inside, and the skirt was almost dry. With astute arranging, it would not show dampness of rain on the bench. The shawl was put with the rest on the window sill for collection afterwards. Your hair got wet, sure, but wasn’t
that the price to be paid when avoiding Sister St Paul’s clouts from suspicion of wetting the bench from a sinful pee?
‘What else is there?’
The food was gruel, a runny oat water, with a bread every second day, butter Fridays and the same repeated. Lucy sometimes stole bits. The one time Magda tried stealing from somebody else on the same table they caught her and she got walloped first by the nun and then by two of the other girls and had her hair pulled so it bled. Lucy was fast, but never gave any she stole to Magda. Lucy kept it for herself and ate it on the way out if she could, which was only fair because Lucy was older.
‘Meat,’ Lucy whispered.
‘Yes. There’s meat. Y’know, from sheeps and that. Cows, more like.’
Magda knew the older girls’ lay teachers and the nuns had meat, for it set your mouth filling with wet spit. She vaguely remembered meat but didn’t remember where from. It was hardish and floppy on a plate that had pictures on it – blue drawings of funny little people walking on a bridge over water with waves, also blue, and trees that stayed the same all the time and had branches shaped the same as the waves. Magda tried remembering more about the picture on the plate but couldn’t. It was back from before she came to the Magdalenes. Two people in the picture had long frocks on, and an umbrella each. The huts they were walking to were stacked up almost on top of each other on to the edge of the plate. She often wondered how she knew about the blue-pictured plates. Somebody cut the greyish meat up for you and you could eat it with your fingers, or you could use a shiny pusher thing while somebody
laughed and said about people being clever to learn that. And a deep slow chuckly sound, that went
and a scent Magda ever after associated with meat, though it came from a bottle she was allowed to play with on the floor. But that was then, and there was no such plate with pictures and things at the Magdalenes.
‘Yes, daftie. It comes from the butchers.’
Magda wondered if she had once been in a butcher’s house. Doubtless there would be meat there.
‘Wednesdays. Never Fridays.’
‘Do we not bring it in the baskets?’ Magda was disappointed.
‘No, daftie. Meat’s mortal heavy.’
Magda admired Lucy for knowing so many things. She wanted to be like Lucy, really clever, and longed to see this heavy thing called meat. Maybe she could remember more things about pushers and plates and being on a carpet and playing with a bottle, if only she saw this meat.
‘Course it is, daftie. It comes to the postern gate when we’re in class.’
‘Is it like a dog?’
Magda knew the delivery man had a dog, because he shouted it to guard. Magda knew what a dog was, remembered lying on a
that snored. She had heard one of the older girls telling her mates that she stood on a chair to see, when the nun was out of her class, and claimed she saw a delivery boy, the butcher’s, delivering meat in boxes. ‘Fish on Thursday for Fridays, see,’ Lucy said, but she was only guessing. Lucy was good at being full of scorn. Magda suspected, but had no
way of proving, that Lucy even thought and sometimes quietly spoke, her scorn about the nuns, which was sinful.
‘Don’t be stupid. A
is a dog.’
‘Is it heavy?’
‘Course it is.’
Lucy nudged Magda, seeing the shadow go by the end of the corridor, which meant the boss nun was coming back so they’d have to stop talking and stand in ‘an attitude of dutiful obedience and preparedness,’ in Sister St Paul’s sworn oath. This meant feet together, standing with hands folded and looking at the floor until spoken to when they would have to respond quickly and do as they were told.
‘Time you shut up about it,’ Lucy said. Lucy could get angry quick as wink.
‘What?’ Magda couldn’t follow what Lucy meant.
‘You’re always on about how heavy’s this and that.’
‘It’s OK.’ Lucy was jaunty, which thrilled Magda. It must be great to be jaunty, thinking all sorts of wild things Magda wouldn’t even dare let into her head for fear of Hellfire.
She had the nerve to ask. Learning Lucy, her admired partner, was seven years old – whatever seven was – Magda asked how old she was, of that same Sister St Paul, and was told, after a cursory glance of appraisal, ‘You’re five, I’d say.’
‘Five. How old were you when you came?’
‘Please, Sister, nobody told me.’
‘Five, then. What date did you arrive?’
‘I don’t know, Sister.’
‘Then you’re rising five. Do not ask again, understand?’
So at rising five, Magda had an age and a definite date for it. To Magda, this was momentous, to stay unforgot for life. She asked another nun, Sister Annuncion, what saint’s day it was in Religion and Doctrine, and got a point for asking such a holy thing. She was told it was the twenty-second of July, this being the feast day of St Mary Magdalene.
So then Magda knew that, thanks to God being kind, she was rising five that very day, and she had a birthday all her own, and it was the twenty-second of July, whatever those words meant. And rising five, she learnt from Lucy, meant the day following whatever this rising business was. So on that day she would become five. Nobody said anything when the next day came. Magda was disappointed, though nobody else ever seemed to have any birthdays to speak of, not even Lucy, who had developed a mortal bad cough.
Lucy couldn’t worry much about birthdays, she told Magda. She said quite cheerily, ‘I’ll be dead soon because my cough spits blood. That’s always bad. I’m going to the arms of Jesus, Mary and Joseph soon, and I’ll have proper dinners and tea in white cups and saucers with coloured grapes drawn on them.’ Other girls said that was a truly terrible way to talk because it meant you were ungrateful to being part of the Church Militant Here On Earth among the pagan foes, but Little Sally, who you had only to call by her number, One-One-Three, because she, like Magda and others, had been born out of wedlock, said it was an affliction and made your shit go black. It had happened to her mother, which was why she was in the care of the Magdalenes.
None of the other girls took any notice, because it was only Little Sally. If you were born out of wedlock it didn’t matter who your mother was or what happened to her because she’d been bad and serve her right.