Authors: Toni Maguire
To Alison Pierce.
For thirty years of love and friendship.
Through the worst of times and the best of times.
’m an adult now, the past is dealt with.’
That was what I told myself as I stood at the desk where my mother had done her household accounts.
The voice of my subconscious mocked me then.
‘The past is never dealt with, Toni. It’s our past that creates us.’
No sooner did those unwanted words flit into my head than my treacherous memories began to slide back to when I was the teenage Antoinette.
Antoinette. Just the name filled me with sadness.
I pushed those thoughts to the back of my mind and opened the desk, the only piece of furniture that remained from the joint home my parents had shared. I found the deeds of the house and put them to one side ready to give to the solicitor. Next came an old leather wallet which, on opening it, I saw contained two hundred pounds in notes of various denominations.
Underneath them, I found letters yellowed by age and three photographs that must have lain there from before my mother’s death. One was of my mother and me when I was just under a year old, one was of my mother’s parents and there was a head-and-shoulder photograph of my grandmother when she was around thirty years old.
The letters aroused my curiosity. They were addressed to my mother in an old-fashioned copperplate hand and opening one, I found a simple love letter written by a young man who was separated from his family by war. He was overjoyed by the birth of their baby girl. He had only seen his daughter once when she was just a few weeks old. He had been back to Ireland on leave granted following her birth and now he was missing his wife and newborn child. The years had faded the ink but I was still able to decipher the words.
, he had written,
how much I miss you…
As I read on, tears came to my eyes. Love poured off the pages and, for a few seconds, I believed it. He told her how he was in Belgium and, as a mechanic, he was placed at the rear of the advancing army.
No doubt surrounded by beautiful Flemish woman susceptible to his infectious smile and ready laugh, I thought sourly.
His closing sentences were:
I think how much Antoinette must have grown. It seems such a long time since I saw her. I count the days till I can hold you both again. Tell her that her daddy loves her and can’t wait to see her again. Give her a big kiss from me.
I looked down at the words written on thin paper all those years ago and grief threatened to overwhelm me – grief for what could have been, and for what
have been. An intense pain flooded my body. I staggered to the nearest chair as strength left me and slumped onto it. My hands rose to my head and gripped both sides of it as though by doing so I could fight the images that were forcing themselves in.
It was as though a projector in my head had sprung into life. A stream of unwanted pictures from the past flooded my mind: I saw Antoinette, the plump toddler, smiling up at her mother with the innocence of babyhood. I saw her just a few years later as the frightened child she had become after her
father had taken away the essence of her childhood; he had stolen the innocence, the joy and the wonder and replaced it with nightmares. Sunny days had been denied her. Instead she had lived with fear and walked in grey shadows.
Why, I wondered over thirty years later.
A voice came into my head and spoke sternly to me: ‘Stop looking for the actions of a normal man because he wasn’t one. If you can’t accept now what he was then, you never will accept it.’
I knew the voice spoke the truth. But memories that I had repressed resurfaced, cleared the protective mist from my mind and sent me back in time, to when one nightmare ended and another began.
I saw it as vividly as if it were yesterday: a girl, hardly old enough to be considered a teenager. I felt again her bewilderment, her despair and her feelings of betrayal. I saw her frightened and alone, not understanding why she had to suffer so much. I saw Antoinette, the victim.
Antoinette – the girl who used to be me.
t was the day of her father’s trial.
Sitting on a hard and uncomfortable bench outside the courtroom, Antoinette waited patiently to be called as the only witness in the case. Flanked on one side by the police sergeant and on the other by his wife, she sat without talking between the only two people who were offering her support.
She knew this was the day she had been dreading. Today her father was to be sentenced for his crime – the crime that would send him to prison. The police had made that very clear to her as they told her that he had pleaded guilty. Because of that, she would not be cross-examined but the court would want to know if she had been a willing participant in what had happened, or a victim of multiple rapes. The social workers had explained those facts to her. She was a week away from her fifteenth birthday – old enough to understand what they told her.
She sat silently, trying to escape her thoughts. She concentrated on remembering the happiest day of her childhood. It had been almost ten years previously, on another birthday in another life, before all the horror began, when her mother had given her a black-and-tan terrier puppy called Judy. She had
loved Judy immediately and the little dog returned her affection.
Judy was at home right now, waiting for her. Antoinette tried to conjure up her pet’s face and draw comfort from the one living creature that had always loved her, constantly and unconditionally. But try as she might, the image of the little dog faded, replaced by the memory of the day just after she’d turned six years old, when her father had first molested her.
Before long, he was abusing her three times a week, carefully when she was just a child and with more force as she grew older, though he helped her through it by giving her whiskey to numb her senses. Over the years it went on and she kept quiet, cowed by his violence and his threats that she would be taken away, reviled, disbelieved – blamed.
Then, when she was fourteen years old, she became pregnant. She would never forget the atmosphere of fear that hung over the house as she vomited every morning and her belly grew larger. Eventually, her mother, cold and uncaring, had told her to take herself to the doctor. It was the doctor who had told her she was expecting a baby. When he’d said, ‘You must have had sex with somebody’, she’d replied, ‘Only with my father.’
There was an awful silence before he asked, ‘Were you raped?’
She didn’t even know what rape was. The doctor visited her mother and, between the two of them, they arranged for her to have a private abortion. It was all to be kept deadly quiet, for the sake of the family – but Antoinette had let someone else in to the secret. In her distress, she’d gone to a teacher’s house and told her the truth. The teacher in turn had gone to social services. Then Antoinette and her father were arrested.
She had told the police everything, from that day when she was six and it had all started. She had also told them that her mother did not know about what had happened. She believed this because she needed to.
To an observer, Antoinette looked quite calm and composed as she waited to be called in to give her evidence to the court. She sat silently, alone apart from the police. Her mother had not come that day. She was neatly dressed in a grey skirt and her old school blazer which hung loosely on her slight frame. Her dark brown hair, styled in a page-boy cut, fell to her shoulders. She was an attractive teenager with a woman’s body and a child’s vulnerable face. Her pallor and the dark circles smudged under her eyes showed the sleepless nights she had endured and a slight tremor in her right eye revealed the stress that she was under – apart from that, she was expressionless.
The recent abortion of her father’s child and the subsequent illness that followed had left her weak and exhausted. Shock and depression had given her an artificial calmness that appeared to others to be the composure of a child mature beyond her years.
Her emotions, too, were numb after her recent ordeal and, as she waited to be called, she felt very little. She knew that after the trial she would be going home to a mother who no longer loved her and a town who blamed her for everything she had suffered. Nevertheless, the years had taught her how to separate herself from her emotions and she remained outwardly calm.
Her wait ceased when the door of the courtroom swung open to allow the clerk of the court to walk briskly through. She knew that he had come to fetch her.
‘Antoinette Maguire, the judge has a few questions for you.’ He indicated that she should follow as he turned and walked back into the court.
The police sergeant and his wife smiled their encouragement but Antoinette did not notice. She concentrated on following the black-garbed clerk into the courtroom. Once inside, the silent pressure of the courtroom made her stop walking and, without looking, she could feel her father’s eyes boring into her from the dock. Everything else around her appeared stern and forbidding: the dark sombre gowns of the barristers, the vivid scarlet formal robes of the judge, their wigs and their serious expressions.
She stood in the waiting courtroom, a small figure overwhelmed by her surroundings, with no idea what was expected of her. The formality of the court both bewildered and disoriented her as she waited for instructions. Then she felt someone touch her arm and show her where to stand. In a trance she stepped into the witness box where little more than the top of her head could be seen, as the judge spoke to her, telling her, as the clerk had said, that he had just a few questions to ask her. The clerk gave her the Bible and, in a voice that quivered, she repeated the oath.
‘I promise to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God.’
‘Antoinette,’ said the judge, ‘I just want you to answer a few questions, then you will be free to go. Just answer them to the best of your ability. And remember that you are not on trial here. Can you do that?’
She finally raised her eyes to meet the judge’s, for the tone of his voice when he addressed her made her feel, that in some way, he was on her side. She kept her eyes focused on his. Then she could not see her father. ‘Yes.’
The judge leant over, put his arms on the edge of his bench and looked at her in as kindly a way as he could. ‘Did you at any time tell your mother about what was happening to you?’
‘No.’ She almost believed it to be true, for she had still blocked out the memory of when she had told her. She clenched her fists, digging her nails into the palms. She had thought that all her tears were dried up and she had nothing left to cry with but now they threatened to return. Her eyes prickled and stung but she used all her strength to hold them back. Nothing would let her cry in public and allow these strangers to see her shame.
‘Do you know the facts of life? Do you know how women become pregnant?’
The atmosphere was tense as everyone waited for Antoinette’s answer. She kept her eyes locked on the judge and tried to make the rest of the courtroom disappear as she whispered, ‘Yes.’
She sensed her father watching her and felt the tension in the room increase as the judge asked the final question. She heard the intake of breath when it came.
‘Then surely you must have been scared of becoming pregnant?’ It was a question she had been asked so many times, by social workers and the police and she told him exactly what she’d told them. She replied carefully, ‘He used something. It looked like a balloon and he said that it would stop me having a baby.’
There was a collective sigh as everyone in the court breathed out. She had confirmed what they had all suspected, that Joe Maguire had calculatingly and systematically abused his daughter from the age of six and after she had matured to
the point where she had her first period, he had worn condoms.
With Antoinette’s answer, her father’s defence disintegrated. He had tried to claim that his actions were those of a sick man who had been overcome by his impulses. His daughter’s innocent description of a condom, something she did not even know the word for, gave the lie to this. His actions were not impulsive, they were premeditated. Joe Maguire was completely responsible for his actions.
The judge thanked her for her answers and told her she could leave the court. Still keeping her eyes averted to avoid her father’s stare, she walked back alone through the double doors into the waiting area.
She was not present when the judge handed down her father’s sentence. Her father’s solicitor, paid for by her mother, gave Antoinette the details half an hour later.
Joe Maguire had received a four-year prison sentence for a crime he had committed over a period that had spanned seven years. He would walk free in thirty months; one third of the time that Antoinette had suffered.
She felt nothing. For a long time, the only way she had kept her sanity was by not feeling anything at all.
‘Your father wants to see you,’ continued the solicitor. ‘He’s in the holding cells.’
Still trained to obey, she went to see her father. The interview was short. He stared at her arrogantly, still secure in the knowledge that he could control her, and told her to look after her mother. Unable to break the habit of being a good daughter, she said she would. He showed no concern as to who would look after his daughter.
As she left the cells, she was told that the judge wished to see her in his chambers. There, with his wig and scarlet gown
removed, he seemed less imposing and more kindly. Seated in the small room, she took comfort from his words.
‘Antoinette, you will find, as I know you already have, that life is not fair. People will blame you, as they already have. But I want you to listen to me very carefully. I’ve seen the police reports. I’ve seen your medical reports. I know exactly what has happened to you, and I’m telling you that none of this was your fault. You have done nothing to be ashamed of.’ He smiled and then walked with her to his door.
She left the court with his words tucked safely into her mind; words that over the years she would take out for comfort, words that helped her face a family and a town who did not share his opinion.