Authors: Jonathan Gash
Poor Lucy, of course, kept falling in Magda’s nightmares, but eventually there might be a way of helping the poor mite, and give her peace. It was
Magda knew, because that’s what the prayer said. That being so, wasn’t it also a worthy and wholesome thought to think of doing something about Lucy to stop her from falling night after night in order to not only loose her from her sins, poor thing, but also give her eternal rest?
And let Magda sleep. But that was selfish.
Magda set her mind on confession. The big question, in her mind ever since she recognised Father Doran at Mass, was what to confess.
‘See,’ she told Grace who worked in the sluice at the St Cosmo and was forever saying her Rosary, ‘it’s what you say to them, isn’t it?’
‘You’ve to tell them everything.’
‘Every single thing?’
In Magda’s mind, besides Lucy, there was the problem of the lad whose rough busy fingers made her bleed that time and set her worrying she was going to get pregnant so she’d be shunted back into the Magdalenes and the baby, her baby as never was, would never even set eyes on her, its very own mother. Glory be, what a way to live, all because of some lad gasping like a landed trout, though Magda had never seen a landed trout. She imagined having all kinds of telltale evidence about her from Damien trying it on, like maybe evidence on her one tubby-shape cut-down skirt that a simple girl called Margaret had given her – that is,
truly a real gift, because
Margaret was going to live in a house where a proper family of real people lived, and they would buy – that is, buy, pay for in a shop – clothes for her. And Magda felt like a queen when she wore it, though it was too long but that was all right because long meant concealment, there being lads who looked and whistled and did things with their fingers in the air and grinned when they went past.
Grace was definitely holy, and could tell you things about the lives of the saints that would curl your hair. Like St Jerome, who was always condemning harlots about lipstick and putting powder on your face and hanging out of windows looking at street lads and soldiers but who was the cleverest saint in the whole of God’s Church Militant, even counting St Augustine who had been a bad child and a worse lad and who wrote it all down to warn sinners.
‘You go to Hellfire if you don’t tell everything,’ Grace warned.
She was a saint herself, with all the stinky stuff she had to sluice from the old people in the Care Home. One was especially foul – not his fault of course because he too was made in the image of God Almighty, but he was old as the hills and shat his bed. It was a lucky day when old Mr Liam MacIlwam didn’t shit his bed and need the whole bedclothes changing.
Magda didn’t mind helping in this terrible chore because it was like when Christ was crucified. The women and them saints who put Christ into His shroud and then put him into that old tomb of His, well, they must have polished Him up because that’s what is the ineffable duty of women. So Magda said a prayer to Christ when she helped Grace to wash Mr MacIlwam’s bedclothes, and it was the one that Sister St Union said was meant to tell you how to keep your soul clean and
pure for the time when you and God would become one in Heaven, so you had to stay clean all the time, in thought, word and deed. And it was this:
Lavabo inter innocentes manus meas, et circumdabo aktare tuum, Domine, ut audiam vocem laudis.
Which meant, Magda had learnt by heart from listening to Lucy, who read the English out to her when they were allowed to share a Small Roman Missal at Holy Mass:
‘With the pure in heart I will wash my hands clean, and take my place among them at thy altar, Lord.’
This was as far as she could get, because Magda could never get the hang of reading, which was the reason she still had something of a limp on her left leg, from nuns giving her a right whack with that old round ruler they often carried, though some were rounder and longer than the ones other nuns carried.
She dreamt of the time when, with maybe some friend from outside if ever she found one, she would get learnt her letters, but there they stood on that old page and never jumped into her brain like they did for Lucy. It was unfair, Magda would have thought, if she’d dared to think like that, that Lucy hadn’t had the power to leave a will in writing, so the courts would see it through for her to get Lucy’s great gift of reading. Then Magda would be able to read away like any old priest and any old nun and wouldn’t be slow and simple, because that’s how she learnt she was too stupid to read.
‘There is a place in Heaven,’ Sister Annuncion told her more than once, which was really kind.
‘For me, Sister?’
‘Of course for you, stupid girl. Who else?’
‘Because I can’t read like the others.’
Magda had just guessed she was rising nine, and had marked the day down as her birthday, so naturally she was interested. But this was when Lucy was still alive and hadn’t been carried off by the White Spit, that the nuns called TB. It was strange that, because Lucy’s spit was rusty, then bright red and even full of blood and nothing in it of grolly – as the girls called the phlegm that was thick and pussy yellow when you got a bad cough – and it should be called Red Spit, though what did a girl rising nine know if she couldn’t even read? God rest Lucy, though.
Anyway, she was cleaning up old Mr Liam MacIlwam, who had shat himself again, when she saw he was wide awake. And looking at her. She was embarrassed, because the old man was always fast asleep when the nun – this particular day it was Sister Claire – did his last wash, which included his lower regions where nobody was allowed to see because there were men’s things that women hadn’t to see.
‘What?’ she said.
Sister Claire was gone down the ward to bring the clean sheet and the plastic under-sheet that was always put under the old folk in case they got shitty so the mattresses didn’t get dirty.
Old Mr MacIlwam’s eyes were wet. She stared at him with horror, in a panic wondering if this was the start of a stroke because that’s what one old woman had done in the other ward, twisted up on her right side and pissed herself and shat in the bed then her eyes had run water like Mr MacIlwam’s eyes were doing.
‘I keep seeing Terry,’ Mr MacIlwam said.
His voice was creaky like the dormitory door back in the Magdalenes. The only time Magda had heard it before was
when he had suddenly tried to sing along and join in a hymn and the nun had told him to sing it silently because it would help the others if he kept quiet.
It had been
the hymn, and Magda had heard Sister Claire tell Mr MacIlwam that and thought what a shame, because God might actually like that old scratchy voice. It might have reminded Jesus of some door in St Joseph’s carpenter’s shop in Galilee or wherever and brought a smile to His Face, though you never did hear of Jesus smiling in the Gospels. At least, Magda had never heard of it. But old Mr MacIlwam shut up as he was bound to do and stayed silent all through until the end of the hymn.
Who was Terry? Magda wondered if she should run and bring Sister Claire from the laundry cupboards, where she could spend half an hour, always tutting and then going off to tell some other woman from the other side, where the healthy old folk were, that they ought to keep the cupboards tidier because it made difficulties for everybody else and had they no pride in being decent handmaidens of the Lord?
‘Terry,’ old Mr MacIlwam said in his cracked-door croak. ‘You remember Terry.’
‘Yes,’ Magda bleated as quietly as she could so as not to get the old man in trouble, for conversation had Seeds of Iniquity when exchanged unlawfully. For this reason, Mary the Mother of Jesus never got a look-in in the Gospels, poor woman, because it might have given way to thoughts other than what was holy, because you never could tell. So said Sister Annuncion. One girl back in the Magdalenes got a good point for asking that question when it was Religion and Doctrine,
and Magda wished she could read so she too could discover things like that in the Gospel and get a point.
A good point didn’t give you anything, but the other girls in the same section of the class always treated you better for getting a good point, in case it gave something they might share if anything came of it.
‘I keep seeing him falling.’
Magda almost swayed and fell in a faint at that. She even sank onto the edge of the bed, which made old Mr Liam MacIlwam look surprised because nobody had ever done that. Magda went dizzy too. Nobody else, surely, had the same terrible dream, of seeing the girl falling like she did. Also, Mr MacIlwam was a man, who could only have been in a boys’ school, so how could he have seen the girl fall?
She had a sudden vision, Lucy’s cardigan so close Magda could have touched her before she moved, and those words Magda could never remember but which were clear as day…
‘Falling,’ she repeated, frightened out of her wits.
‘Falling down. In the cold.’
‘In the cold.’ Magda could have fallen down herself.
‘In the schoolyard.’
‘Schoolyard!’ Magda repeated with relief, ‘Schoolyard!’
‘You remember it, don’t you, Tom?’
‘Yes,’ Magda bleated, quietly now so as not to betray Tom, whoever Tom was and wherever he might be.
They might have been boys forbidden to watch Terry falling down in the schoolyard, and people said funny things in fright or when daydreaming. She knew that, having several times been caught out in the school or at work in the kitchen or in Holy Mass, even, suddenly saying something out loud that one of the other girls heard and repeated along the kneeling line
so they started giggling and that’s how you got found out and your legs made all chapped and red and blistered from round ruler whackings.
‘It was the day after mitching.’
Running away from school when you were not allowed was mitching.
Mostly the girls who mitched were the ones who had families somewhere. They were girls to be envied, because at least they had families to run away to, but the ones that got treated worst and whacked more than most were the girls who had no families at all and who came from orphanages. And they included Magda, and were a Stigma on Holy Mother Church, being evidence of past sinfulness in their families and so deserved their fate.
‘Yes?’ Magda said, being Tom for the whilst.
Old Mr MacIlwam beckoned like men beckoned, with a kind of tilt of the head. Magda had tried this, even in the mirror of the corridor where she had to clean the wooden things with Mansion Polish, which was a terrible sin because you looked in the mirror often enough and Satan himself would stare right back at you and that would be that. In the big rectangular mirror she tried the men’s gesture, tilting her head so as to say come here, like the old inmates of the Care Home, but it didn’t look right at all. Maybe it was something the men were all taught and maybe even born with. She wondered if Christ Himself had done it to his earthly father St Joseph, the carpenter, saying, ‘Pass that hammer, St Joseph,’ or some such, or maybe instead of saying, ‘Here, St Joseph, come and see how I’ve made this television table’ or whatever it was, simply jerking His head and saying, ‘This here table, will it do?’
‘I wanted to go instead with Tom when he mitched off.’
‘Sure to God I did. Anything to be away from them old Christian Brothers.’
Magda prayed hard for Sister Claire to come back with the plastic undersheet but she could hear her clear as day down the end of the room telling somebody off (‘Yes, Sister,’ and ‘No, Sister,’ and ‘I truly repent, Sister,’) and going on and on when she should be coming back fast to save Magda the terrible responsibility of hearing all this from old Mr Liam MacIlwam.
‘You never did, Tom, though, did you?’
‘No,’ Magda answered.
‘I watched long after you’d gone in. I took the risk, and saw Terry fall. He was blue with cold.’
‘They stood the three lads in line, all three of them, in the cold all through the playtime.’
‘You remember when we came out to get our dinner they were all three in a line there, lying in the cold and blue. I was frantic. I cried and those two lads from Canav started laughing and kicked me stupid.’
‘I bled like a stuck pig all afternoon.’
Surely it wasn’t sinful to say the words old Mr MacIlwam was telling her when she didn’t even know what the story was about? Except she was so sad about Terry being left in the cold all morning and through the midday and then into the afternoon, stiff and blue in the cold on the floor out there.
‘My arm got broke that time. Callum from the Frackrelett Industrial School. He was a transfer, from fighting back with one of the Brothers there. It healed bent wrong.’
Sure enough Mr MacIlwam’s left arm stuck out at an angle that wasn’t quite right, the elbow being at an odd shape with the wrist turned as if he was always reaching into his pocket or trying to lift something that was just that bit too heavy.
‘The Christian Brothers said it was the judgement of the Lord for staring at Terry on the playground floor when I should have hurried into class when the bell rang.’
‘It was really Callum from Frackrelett?’ Magda, helping the old man along.
‘You weren’t there when they set on me. The whole class got punished.’
‘What happened to Terry?’ she asked, drawn in.
‘Terry got better. The other lad, Six-Nine, was taken away.’
‘Taken away where?’
‘Taken away.’ The head-beckon pulled her slightly closer. She could hear Sister Claire’s voice in that tone of finality, ‘Well, just you remember your solemn duty, all of you!’ so there would be no more time for all this listening.
‘The cold was mortal bad that day. The frost never went. The snow began about the last Angelus. The lads were covered in white, blue under the layer of snow, see?’
‘They didn’t move. They all finally fell down. Brother Patrick did it.’
‘He was the one always did it. We said you never came back when you went to get punished by Brother Patrick.’
‘Never came back? Terry never came back?’
‘Course not. You remember. You were in the same team.’
‘So I was,’ Magda said, baffled.
‘Six-Nine never came back. He went for good. Terry got better. The other lad I didn’t know. He had a dad come for him in the end, with papers and everything. He wanted to be a singer, but there was no way to get his voice going. No song in him, see.’