Authors: Jonathan Gash
She thought, why am I telling him this? She said again the bit about doing only what she was told.
‘Give us a minute.’
The last time she’d given a lad a few minutes she’d ended up scared witless that she was going to have a baby and bleeding
so unexpectedly into her knickers. She’d made a Novena to the Virgin Mary for that, and told it all out in confession and had got a penance that she ought really to be still saying if she’d taken her time with it, fifteen Credos to start with and three Rosaries one after the other and no daytime meals for a week.
‘What time do you get off?’
‘Me? Six o’clock.’
He nodded, thinking. Magda turned to glance at the windows of the Care Home. Nobody showed there. They would all be getting ready for their breakfast, which she would carry round in the end block very soon if she could get away from this motorbike lad who was still dripping his great wet blobs.
It would be dark later, and sometimes she and Grace walked home down the Borro together for safety because of bad lads and shouting drunks or, as Mrs Fogarty cheerfully said in joke, in hopes of lepping onto some passing young feller-me-lad and shutting him up good and proper, which made Magda go red and set Grace praying.
‘I’ll be here.’
‘No.’ She almost shouted that, too. She turned and started away.
‘I want your help with Grampa,’ he said after her, his boots scuffing the gravel so she worried for an instant that he might be getting down off that bike and coming after her. ‘Please.’
That word again made her pause. She looked back. ‘What do you want me to do?’
‘Help him. Promise?’
‘Yes.’ She was going to say of course, because that’s what she did. Ever since she’d arrived at the Care Home she’d helped people. She thought she did it well.
‘Do you catch the bus?’
‘I mean tonight.’
‘Maybe.’ Then, in panic because she’d the murder of Father Doran to plan this afternoon, when the priest came a-visiting the old people and the nuns, and he had his special tea with Sister Stephanie where they chuckled about, doubtless, holy things, she said, ‘No, not tonight.’
It had to be worked out today, because it had taken her so long to get herself to this pitch of preparation. She knew she’d never kill anybody, much less Father Doran, if she didn’t make a decent start and put a good foot under her.
‘Why not?’ He looked at her and her voice dried up, like her throat had suddenly got oldish.
‘You working late tonight?’
‘Yes!’ She cried out the lie with relief.
‘Tomorrow then? There’s not a lot of time.’
Well, she’d no watch and you couldn’t see the clock over the porch from this far away, and in any case she’d never been too good at numbers written, clocks included.
‘Yes. I’ll be at the end of the Borro waiting, OK? Tomorrow.’
‘I don’t know. What for?’
How could she explain she was going to work out how to kill Father Doran today? The man had already wept himself out from the look of him. He’d started his challenge of her with red face and a wet chin, and now looked pale as death.
‘You must. Please, Magda.’
‘Look out for Grampa, will you?’
‘Course I will.’
Then he said it, the one thing that swayed her and made her vow to help him whatever the consequences.
‘Don’t tell the nuns or the others, whatever you do, will you?’
‘Tell them what?’ she asked quick, stricken.
‘That I talked to you.’
‘Me?’ Stupid, stupid. Who was there, but the two of them?
‘Or what I said about Grampa?’
‘No,’ she said, truthful now.
‘Promise.’ He wasn’t asking. He was telling. Anyway, she thought, firmly resolving to get herself moving, it was fine by her.
She always kept promises, wherever she had made it and whoever it had been with, for promises excluded nuns, except the ones due to God, and that was a special arrangement called conscience. Even to Lucy she had kept her promise, though whether it should include confession or not she would never be sure. Once she finished killing the priest, that would be an end to it and Lucy would stop falling and the whole world would be at peace, Magda in there too with the rest of them, all like sleeping babes.
She hurried indoors, thinking, where did he say? End of the Borro, six o’clock tomorrow when she got off duty and the old folks were all settled for the evening. She went to work out her plan, wondering whether she ought to say a prayer for the poor priest.
The trouble was, she thought, Holy Mother Church never taught rules for things like this.
Father James Doran was the most presentable priest in the bishopric. He was sure of this, and easily found reasons.
For one, he kept his youthful form, and his cassock of fifteen years still fitted. His future position as monsignor was almost assured. No taint attached to his reputation or his record. He had acquired his B.Theol. degree, though not with honours, and kept in touch with his old tutors. The seminary asked him along to give seminars on the nature of priestly duties ‘in the field’, the title of the two-day stint he did every month for young priests there. He was warmly welcomed.
Ambition was not sinful, no. Ambition honestly applied, with considerations of conscience and a sufficiency of prayer on careers, was duty thoughtfully applied and sincerely executed. Father Doran’s intention was, with the bishop’s approval, to establish a series of diocesan lectures on the Changing Nature of Priestly Life, without any dangerous Shavian interpretations of post-John Paul II’s suggested variations, which were seeping into the Church’s established doctrine. He had spoken with the bishop on several occasions with the aim of setting in the
prelate’s mind the worthiness of appointing a special recruiting monsignor as an autonomous division. This would be a post of power – relatively, of course, but having influence. It would inevitably lead to greater things.
If the incumbent were successful, it would hallmark the appointee and without question lead to a bishop’s mitre. The present bishop, a pleasant and affable man, was ailing and elderly, and besides, had seen too many harrowing lawsuits to be of much further use in rebuilding the solid reputation of the Church. More conviction could have left the Church unsullied. As things stood, however, there was no doubt in many people’s minds that the Church was going through times of hardship, abused from all sides. London newspapers were proving their usual scurrilous selves, their pernicious influence extending across the Irish Sea into Dublin and the rest of Eire. The terrible, sad events in America’s Boston had encouraged the hounds of the gutter press to come baying after the Church. In Doran’s view, this was only par for the course. The Church had always been beset. Enemies were abetted from within by incompetence and weakness, well illustrated by the hopelessly inept lawyers and clergy of the diocese of Boston in Massachusetts, USA. That was the road to bankruptcy.
He sighed, waiting for his audience to assemble. They would consist of eleven nuns and the Sister Superior today. They always notified him two days beforehand, so he could tailor his talk to their understanding. There were doubts, sometimes, not a few expressed in ordinary converse about the tea table, some even surfacing these days outside the secrecy of the confessional, quite as if any and every subject was open to question. Outrageous, new, dangerous. There was one nun in particular, Sister Francesca, who seemed to harbour a faint
uncomplicity, which might, if not nipped in the bud, burgeon into doubt itself.
Almost shuddering, Father Doran composed himself to form his thought sequence. There were various ways to do this. Charles Dickens, a scurrilous propagandist, was wont, he had read in a biography, to establish in his mind a circle, each sector dealing with a particular part of his theme. Dickens would then speak on each in turn, until the full circle of his talk was done. He would end with a reading. No wonder the man was so successful, though he had spoken, and written, a derogatory account of the Americans.
America. Father Doran always grew angry thinking of the gutter press. Its evil miasma had turned the noble diocese of Boston into a charnel house, a veritable pit of sinfulness. London’s newspapers, of course, gloried in the discomfiture of Holy Mother Church, telling how the most sacred institution on earth, established by God Himself, had been somehow involved in paedophilia and the physical abuse of children entrusted to the Church’s care. Typical that the English press should resent so, and delight in New England’s discomfiture, for hadn’t the original Boston, Lincolnshire, been named after the English St Botolph, as Botolphstown? Crimes detailed in the media were unnatural and impossible. Father Doran had heard the news reports on television. An abomination, of course, and utterly unbelievable. Who could do such a thing to innocent children? No. It could only be explained by the spread of false accusations. Moral laxity, the immorality of drugs and carnal expression of wanton profligacy extended all over the world.
One consequence was most distressing of all. Doran hoped to be sent to the United States on an exchange, perhaps for a sabbatical year, and then who knew? A complete transfer, with
all the opportunities that might represent, could be on offer. Emigration, following brilliant clergymen of the past, to live successfully in the USA. The final destination was unknowable, but promising. Canada too had suffered, with the Christian Brothers falling prey to the media’s malignity even there. And Australia. Who knew where else?
The nuns entered. He rose, composing his features into an expression of benevolence and pleasure. Eleven today, with the two senior nuns in the lead. Words were exchanged, all smiling. Father Doran always liked to create an impression of eager activity at this point, so he allowed them to sit and started immediately.
‘I thank you as ever, Sisters, for the invitation to visit and to bore you, huff-huff, yet again with a few thoughts about the sacred duties we all concern ourselves with. I was just considering when you arrived how the social sphere – welfare, legalities, the Church’s wider roles in the community – has come to overlap that of the exercise of piety within the Church…’
Magda heard them at it in there as she carried the trays to the hallway and laid them on the mahogany table one by one. When the talking finished, she and Philippa took the trays into the nuns’ refectory. They had a separate tray to take in to the office where the two senior nuns would give Father Doran his tea before he started in his rounds and heard the confessions of the old folk, if they asked for him.
Philippa was a Magdalene who now lived with her auntie and an uncle near Moore Street Market. She said she’d been born in the Rotunda and got rescued from the machine shop in the Magdas when her brother became of age and walked, bold as you please, and signed for Philippa. The ungrateful girl
still gnawed over the years her brother took coming with the papers, and took no notice when Magda, shocked at the girl’s lack of gratitude, said, wasn’t Dominic just a-growing like she was herself and unable to do a single thing on his little own?
‘You should be grateful Dominic didn’t do a wrong thing himself,’ Magda said when she got to know Philippa well enough to say such a terrible thing to another Magdalene. Some could create. She’d seen some truly terrible fights, out here in the open, beyond any restraint of the other convents, when one person said such a thing about another. Though, strange to tell, Magdalenes never fought each other, just said things low down and into their bosoms so nobody would even hear what the ex-Magdalenes were saying or, especially, thinking, when they spoke of the past.
‘It’s true, Magda.’
‘You still should not say such a thing.’
‘I blame my uncle too.’
Magda’s head always reeled over Philippa’s wickednesses, because who knew who put them into Philippa’s brain to speak right out in the first place? Satan, maybe.
‘I can to be sure, Magda.’
‘He’s a good man, Philippa.’
‘Good to hisself more like. And to my aunties. And to Dominic.’
‘And to you.’
When two Magdalenes talked, even out here now they were free and employed with honest wages and long stringy paper chits showing numbers of money at the end of the week, they always talked quieter than anybody else. The ladies who slammed about the kitchens were loud and raised their voices.
Not only that, they would hold their chin up and their register – that’s what it was called, like a soprano had a higher register than an alto – was always high, as if they hardly cared who heard. Especially the married women, though they of course had husbands to stick up for them if anything came of what they said. It was then up to the husband to correct his wife according to the Scriptures and that.
‘Your uncle gives you bed and board, Philippa!’
‘Sure he does.’
‘Then what’s wrong with that?’
Magda thought that must be truly beautiful, a man arguing and laying the law down and not caring if he swore or whistled and the women wanting him to stay quiet. There he’d go, whistling or maybe singing away and looking at the football news and shouting the results over the wall to pals who would come with a bottle of the brown stuff to swill back and argue politics and all kinds of daft things you never heard of.
‘He should have come for me sooner.’
‘How could he?’
‘He was my uncle, wasn’t he?’
‘Yes, course he was.’
‘Then he should have let Dominic get me sooner. He could have. Dominic told me he’d asked him.’
‘When did he tell you?’
Magda had a trial of conscience over this. At the time they were in the sluice and Philippa had decided to start smoking – the crime of
and Magda didn’t actually know how to ask something about Dominic, who she hadn’t seen at all, ever. She thought the words ‘your brother’ far too intimate, because they implied all kinds of things that had gone on in the family between mother and father that you didn’t mention,
not properly. Also, were you allowed to speak out somebody’s name just like that? It might mean you were taking terrible liberties, as if you had spoken to them without anybody else being present, like she had with that lad with his legs astride the motorbike earlier. No, even the short question was something of a risk. Perhaps all talk really was, if you went into it.
‘Dominic?’ (The dreadful ease with which Philippa said that, a man’s name straight out, though of course he was her brother and all.) ‘When he come for me.’
Philippa had told her the story several times before, but Magda couldn’t get enough of hearing it, word after word. It was quite beautiful, because there was Philippa in the machine shop, having trouble as usual threading the under-reel on that terrible old Singer sewing machine with the loose leather on the treadle that kept slipping so Philippa’s legs were always going to cramp, and the broken needle the nuns were too mean to replace except at the end of every week, as if Friday was treat time when the girls would all be thrilled, even though Saturday was also a work day, five o’clock finish instead of six.
And they sent for her, a nun with a message to go immediately to the Mother Superior’s office that very instant, and Philippa was so frightened she almost weed herself running up the corridor and thinking she was going to get a good old clouting for almost dropping off to sleep in Holy Mass that morning, and she’d knocked…
Magda could say the words with Philippa in her head, ‘…There was this man, a grown man, with Mother Superior. He was standing up, and he had a paper in his hand, and Mother Superior was saying he was my brother.’
Magda was so thrilled at the tale. She kept seeing herself instead, in Philippa’s place, and the nun taking the paper and saying, ‘Magda, here is your brother and he has brought legal papers to have you released from our care. Now, I have serious admonitions to make before you can be handed over into your brother’s charge.’
But it was Philippa who was telling the lovely story like some fairy tale they told on the RTE channels, which Magda loved to watch over and over when they did lessons for the little ones. The sad thing, sad for Magda, was it was Philippa who was in the story and not her.
‘What happened then?’
‘I said his name, Dominic. It was such a strange sound in my head, and kept saying itself round and round.’
‘And you didn’t know…’
‘I didn’t know I hadn’t said a single word at all until the Mother Superior told me to say hello politely like a sister should, and thank him for bringing the legal papers from the law so I should leave.’
‘And you were so scared,’ Magda prompted, tears in her eyes every time it got to this bit, because Philippa did as she was bid and then simply flew to get her one other pair of knickers and her comb, which you weren’t allowed to carry with you, and the prayer book that was always sent out with any girl who suddenly got a family or somebody to rescue them safe out of the Magdalenes.
‘Terrified,’ Philippa said, every time making it worse and worse, ‘that my brother would have gone when I got back to the Mother Superior’s office.’
‘But he was still there!’ Magda cried at this juncture, almost delirious each time Dominic was still waiting in that
old Mother Superior’s office, still standing like he was planted on that grand carpet with his precious paper that would get Philippa walking with her brother out of that old Magdalene machinery place.
‘He was still there.’ Philippa always entered into the story when she got to that bit, saying ‘still…
’ like he could have gone anywhere else on earth but no, there he was all right. And Magda, in her ecstasy and relief that Philippa was about to be saved yet again, so the story would still be true for ever and ever, cried it inwardly with her, ‘Still…
!’ And it was the very best feeling.
‘I listened to the Mother Superior telling me about Christian duties and responsibilities and how I must conduct myself in the family I was going to live with from then on, and I hardly heard a single word because I was thinking, oh, please, God, let us go and let my brother here not say something like he’d come back to collect me next week or sometime that might never come.’
‘But he didn’t!’ Magda knew her face was shining with rapture.
‘No. He took hold of me, my actual hand, bold as brass, with the head nun right there, him looking right in my face, and smiled and told me—’
‘He told you,’ Magda always interrupted here, beside herself with impatience to get Philippa out of that corridor smelling of Mansion Polish and down those big wide stairs with the bannisters and out of that front door and crossing herself so she could leave with her brother and her brother saying…