Megan Malone, born out of wedlock in the United States, never knew violence as a child. When her mother took her back to Ireland and married John Taylor – that changed.
This is the story of how domestic violence and abuse forge a bond between a mother and her daughter forcing them to confront the cruel parochialism of rural Ireland in the 1970s.
At the heart of the novel, a young girl perseveres with a campaign to see that justice is meted out to the man who raped her.
When a reactionary priest attempts to block her struggle, he serves as a catalyst to highlight the darkest secrets of the Catholic Church and precipitates an investigation into the aberrant behaviour of abusive clergy.
The novel explores the personal dilemmas of those caught up in the aftermath. It pursues the history of particular cases through the eyes of the innocents and the not so innocent, contrasting the domesticity of the young and unsophisticated with the brutality of the abuse they suffer.
In the end, the simplicity of long-held beliefs and the innate goodness that binds people together triumphs despite battles with the police, the Church and the justiciary.
This is a story about love and courage, and how an indomitable spirit can bring a powerful institution to its knees – all, while God Stepped Out for a Smoke.
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Megan Malone settled at her desk adopting the same routine she had used throughout the week. She removed her blazer and draped it across her legs; the blazer covered trousers she wore to hide welts inflicted by her stepfather’s belt. At seventeen, she still hadn’t mastered her mother’s method of humouring him when he became abusive in drink.
Sister Rita, the English teacher, rummaged through a pile of papers, selected one and turned to the class. She cleared her throat and glared at the sea of frightened faces. “Good afternoon, young ladies.” Scanning the group, she spotted Megan. “Miss Malone, come out here, please.”
Megan searched her pocket and retrieved the note she had shown other teachers to explain the trousers. The note described how she had inadvertently ripped her skirt. Her mother had sent it to a seamstress for mending and would be collecting it over the weekend.
Sister Rita glanced at the note, crumpled it and threw it in the bin. “Your mother doesn’t sew, Miss Malone?”
Megan stared at the floor.
“Look at me, child, and answer the question.”
Megan looked up, scowled, and hesitated before responding. “I didn’t realise you were asking a question.”
The nun’s face reddened, her eyes narrowed and she spoke in a low, calculating voice. “Impudent little madam. You will not speak to me like that in front of the class, is that understood?”
Megan refused to respond. “Do you hear me, Miss Malone? You will not speak to me like that in front of the class.”
Every girl in the room watched and waited. “I hear you,” Megan retorted. “Where should I answer you, then? You made the statement in front of the class.”
“Question, question, I asked you a question.”
“Whatever – in front of the class and I answered, in front of the class.”
“Enough! Enough of your insolence. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, it’s the patience of a saint I’d be needing with the likes of you. I called you up in the first place to address this filth you handed up as coursework.”
Sister Rita waved the paper in the air. “To tell you the truth, I’m not a damn bit interested in what you’re wearing, or whether your mother can sew. I’m more concerned about what’s going on in that head of yours. Lord God of Almighty, I’d give anything to know what makes you tick.”
The plump, middle-aged nun reached deep into the pocket of her habit, pulled out a handkerchief and wiped her brow. “Now, look what you’ve done, gone and got me all worked up and perspiring on a Friday afternoon. I set a straightforward assignment. You were asked to write a poem involving a memorable experience. Every girl in the class wrote about something pleasant and uplifting, except you. Oh, no, nothing to please the spirit and sanctify the soul in this piece.”
Sister Rita paced back and forth waving Megan’s poem as she spoke. “I saw nothing here but incestuous smut. Maybe that’s the kind of garbage they wrote about in the country of your birth, but we don’t write like that in God’s country. Here in Ireland, we know all we need to know about the land of the free, and for that matter, the home of the allegedly brave. We’re well aware of the lapsed morals and wanton ways of American society and the last thing we need is someone doing the devil’s work and attempting to import them. I must remind you, Miss Malone, this is the land of saints and scholars, and as long as I’m teaching in Our Lady’s Grammar, we’ll keep it like that – and we’ll keep this filth where it belongs – away from here.”
Sister Rita paused and glanced at the petrified faces around the room before continuing. “Let me ask you something. You’re not for one minute suggesting this ever happened to you, are you?”
Megan looked at her classmates. She wanted to scream, yes it did, but she knew what the consequences of such a revelation would mean for her mother. She lowered her head. “No, Sister, it didn’t.”
Sister Rita handed back her work. “I should think not. Read it out.” Megan hesitated.
She lifted the page and began to read:
“I heard my mother’s voice
She cried in vain
I heard her plead
‘Oh, God, not the child
Please, please, not the child.’
A boot at the door
Belt in hand, ‘Bastard
I’ll beat breeding into you.
No more whores in this house . . .’ ”
Sister Rita lunged forward and grabbed the page. “Stop! Stop! I can’t bear to listen. Give me that.” She turned to the class. “Everyone stand, face the crucifix and repeat after me.” The chairs in the room rasped en masse as the girls sprang to their feet. Sister Rita commenced a prayer with an authoritative chant. “Oh, Lord, this day, deliver us from evil.”
The girls responded, verbatim.
“Protect us from the wanton ways of the world.”
They echoed the words a second time.
“Oh, Mother of God, cleanse the heart and mind of Megan Malone.”
The class looked at Megan and hesitated. Sister Rita stepped forward, glowered and repeated the phrase. The girls recited her petition in unison.
The nun approached Megan, bent forward and stared into her eyes. “Please, child, for the love of God, direct your efforts to more worthwhile writing pursuits. You have so much talent it grieves me to see you waste it.” She threw the poem in the bin, warned Megan about the dangers of allowing her imagination to run wild, and made her sit beneath the crucifix so that God could watch over her.
Can you hear me?
As pupils laughed and threw books into their lockers, Megan contemplated her options. Oblivious to the high-pitched voices of exuberant teenage girls planning their weekends, she flung her bag under a cloakroom bench and headed towards Sister Rita’s classroom. An uncanny silence ensued as pupils watched her march off.
She knocked on the door, drew a deep breath and entered. Sister Rita sat at her desk, pen in hand, head bowed over an exercise book. She looked up, dropped the pen, crossed her arms and tucked her hands into the sleeves of her habit.
“Megan! Pull up a chair. Believe it or not, I’m glad to see you. You’re breaking my heart . . . and playing havoc with my mind.”
Surprised at the nun’s reaction, Megan trailed a chair over and sat in front of the dilapidated desk piled high with books and papers.
“I’m too set in my ways for this, Megan. As a Sister of Mercy, I’m supposed to be merciful. I took a vow and try so hard, but you don’t make it easy. Maybe it’s time I hung up my habit. Tell me the truth. Do you think I’m out of touch with reality?”
Megan smiled. “No, Sister, not at all. You’re . . . well, you’re a good teacher. You take no nonsense and you have our interests at heart. I appreciate that and I’m sure the others do too.”
The nun’s grimaced face relaxed. She smiled and eased back into her chair.
“Really? You think I’m a good teacher?”
“Of course. Everybody hopes they get you for Leaving Cert English. But . . . well, it’s hard for us too, sometimes.”
Sister Rita nodded. “I know. I know it’s hard for you in particular, Megan. You’re of a different culture – a foreign culture, alien to me. Mores I fear, and values I detest. A country where anything goes and everything is accepted. Divorces granted ad infinitum, families torn apart, children born out of wedlock. Parents . . .” She stopped, removed her hands from her sleeves, reached over and patted Megan on the arm. “I’m sorry, that bears no reflection on you. I’m aware of your background. Forgive me, I didn’t mean to be insensitive.”
“It’s okay, Sister, really, it’s okay. My mom told me you were the one who fought to get me into the convent.”
The nun beamed again. “I did too. Your writing, how could I resist? A gift from God, so talented, so young. Inspirational. Words, so full of life.” She leaned forward, lowered her voice to a whisper and giggled. “It reminds me of how I wrote at your age.” She glanced at the classroom door and strained closer to Megan. “I had a boyfriend once, many years ago. The experience influenced my writing.” She moved back. “But that’s a story for another day.”
“You? You had a boyfriend?”
“Don’t act so surprised. Youth favoured me too, before I became a nun.”
The nun wiped a few spots of chalk dust from her desk and frowned. “He fled to America . . . and never returned.”
“He didn’t write?”
“Oh, he did, a few times, begged me to go over, but, like I say, that’s a story for another day.”
Megan attempted another question, but Sister Rita leaned over and placed her forefinger on her lips.
“No more now. Enough. This is our secret. Maybe I’ll tell you everything some day. Who knows? Anyway, this is about you, not me. I have some advice. Write from the heart. It’s good to be imaginative, but don’t give free rein to the mind. Write from experience, but don’t succumb to sensationalism. Above all, write for the love of God who blessed you with a talent far beyond anyone in the school and share your good fortune with others. Do you hear me?”
“Yes, Sister, I hear you.”
“Do you understand me?”
“Yes, Sister, I understand you.”
“Good. Heed me, so. Be off with you now, I’ve work to do.”
Megan moved to the door, stopped and turned. Sister Rita sat relaxed at her desk, tapping a pen as she read. She looked peaceful; pleased she had proffered such sage advice.
Megan checked the corridor through the glass panes in the door. Certain they were alone, she unzipped her trousers and dropped them to her ankles. “Is this the kind of experience that makes for good writing, Sister? Perhaps this is too sensationalist. Is this part of the gift God gave me so that I could share it with others? I bet there aren’t too many in the convent blessed with this good fortune. Do you hear me? Can you understand what I’m saying?”
Sister Rita stared at the cuts and bruises on Megan’s legs. She blessed herself twice in quick succession, jumped to her feet and cried out: “Holy Mary, Mother of God. Jesus, I had no idea.” She ran over, threw her arms around her, brushed a few wisps of hair from her face and pulled her close. “My child of God. My sweet innocent, forgive me.” She buried her head in Megan’s shoulder, drew back and looked at the ceiling. “Oh, Lord, you sent me a saint and I failed to listen. Have mercy on me. Help me make things right.” She released her, stood before the crucifix and mumbled a few prayers.
As Megan did up her trousers, Sister Rita pleaded. “Megan, you must let me help. There are people we can talk to. This can’t go on.” She grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her gently. “Do you hear me? You must let me help you.”
Megan shrugged and freed herself from the nun’s grasp. “Sure. I must go now. You can help me on Monday.” Sister Rita collapsed into the nearest available desk and rested her chin on her hands. Megan slipped out of the classroom, sauntered down an empty corridor and interrupted a cleaning lady scrubbing floors. “Hi, Deirdre, have you seen my mom?”
“Aggy’s in a classroom today, pet. Can’t have your poor ma on the floor all the time. Jesus, she’s on her knees plenty.”
“When you see her, would you tell her I’ll have the tea ready when she gets home?”
“I will surely, love. Your ma’ll be glad to hear that. It’s somebody like you I’d be needing in my house. God bless us and protect us all, but they’d starve in my place, if it weren’t for me. Starve, I tell you.”
“I hear you, Deirdre, I hear you,” Megan replied, as she loosened her tie, threw her blazer over her shoulder and strolled out into the afternoon sunshine.
Stopping at the village flower shop, Megan bought a single rose and hurried past the pub where her stepfather drank on Friday afternoons. As gravedigger and caretaker of Saint John’s Church, John Taylor enjoyed a special relationship with the parish priest. Canon McCleary indulged him with a work rota that accommodated their mutual needs. If Taylor worked regular hours Monday through Friday, they negotiated arrangements for Saturday and Sunday. This allowed Megan’s stepfather most of the weekend to indulge his insatiable desire to remain a perpetual inebriate.
Two young men stood outside the bookmaker’s, three doors up from the pub. Megan recognised one of them from her part-time job in the local hotel. He smiled and greeted her. “Hi ya, Megan, how’s it going? Are you on tonight?”
“Hello, Jim. No, tomorrow night. Off tonight.”
“Lucky you, it’s mental up there on Fridays. Thank God this weekend’s my last.”
“Got accepted by the Guards – start training on Monday.”
“Great. Good for you.”
Jim’s friend chimed in. “God help us all, McDaid’s joining the Garda Síochána. Says something for policing standards.” He shoved Jim. “I’m sure we’ll all sleep better knowing our safety rests in the likes of his hands.”
“Don’t know about that,” Megan said. “They could do a hell of a lot worse than Jim.”
Jim hit his friend a playful slap on the stomach. “See. See, Meenan, not everybody thinks like you. This young lady knows a good candidate for the Guards when she sees one.”
Megan laughed. “Good luck. I have to run. If I’m not talking to you, I wish you the very best.”
“Thanks, Megan. Where you headed? Who’s the lucky boy,” Jim said, pointing at the rose.
“Oh, not so lucky. I’m going up to my grandparents’ grave.”
“There’s hope for the rest of us then? A date with Megan Malone’s not out of the question?”
Megan laughed. “Go way on with you and join the Guards, never mind about chasing after the likes of me. Take care.” As she turned to go, she heard Meenan comment.
“By Jesus, that’s tidy. I wouldn’t mind giving her the lash.”
Still within earshot, she caught Jim’s response. “That’s your problem, Meenan, you’ve a simple, but filthy mind. Megan’s way out of your league – mine too, for that matter. Come on, let’s see if we’ve won anything.”
She chuckled and hastened on her way. Climbing the steep hill to the cemetery, she used the majestic oak in the centre as a landmark to locate her destination. She weaved through the maze of polished granite to the simple white cross that marked her grandparents’ grave. Megan and her mother were still saving for a marble headstone – one befitting the kind and considerate deceased who had played such a formative part in their lives.
She sat at the grave and blessed herself. Praying always posed a problem – structured prayer, at least. Her mom did enough for both of them. As far as Megan could determine it fitted right into the whole litany of religious traditions that characterized this strange little country where she’d lived for six years.
Everything centred on religious observance. She found it difficult to come to terms with the host of saints’ days, holy days, feast days and fast days. She depended on nuns to explain the meaning of holy hours, novenas, benedictions, processions, expositions and devotions. It seemed to her that confessions, communions and confirmations fitted neatly into a Church agenda that forced allegiance through compliance. The alternative of course – damnation – bore little attraction for anyone.
Megan believed in talking to God. Despite her indifference to Ireland’s culture and formality, she convinced herself that He listened. Hell, the whole world spoke to him in different ways, so she knew He didn’t just listen to the Irish.
She rummaged through her schoolbag, found a poem she had written and read it aloud.
Amidst a sea of marble crosses
You rest in peace now.
carved by crafted hand,
etched deep in gilded gold,
Death, the immortal power, prevails.
It scorns the lasting gravitas
that drives the solitary griever
to stare at granite graves.
Where years and people pass
and only love remains.
Where muted rites
now relics of the past
extend beyond the pain.
Please, take my simple rose
upon your marble breast and breathe
and let your breath restore to life
its miracle of meaning.
For now, though bent in grief,
I hear your sigh.,
Your vibrant faces
fill my empty space,
your love, a loss
I never will replace.
And though you left
your memory still remains,
as strong today
as when we first embraced
So rest your gentle souls
within my presence.
For just as love in life
can lessen pain, so too
in death it salves
our earthly fears.
at last is yours,
I miss you.
On better days,
I hold the helm,
while I rest my childish heart
upon a simple cross,
that guides my journey
through the tidal waves of life.
buoyed in stormy seas,
deliver me from evil.”
She placed the rose on the grave, said a quick Hail Mary and hurried back towards the village. Friday afternoon’s busy taverns spewed drunks onto the streets. Roars of laughter resonated through swinging doors and pungent wafts of tobacco smoke eddied through the air.
She bought the fish for John Taylor’s tea in the local fishmonger’s. Mr. O’Dowd, the proprietor, always took good care of her. “A wee tail for yourself and Agnes, Megan. Atlantic cod, caught fresh this morning off the Irish coast. Food for the devil himself, I tell you. No extra charge, I hate to see it go to waste.” Megan knew Mr. O’Dowd never let it go to waste. He charged everyone else for the same piece.
“Gemma’s down the back,” he said, wrapping the fish in strong greaseproof paper. “Told me to give her a shout if you came in. Hold on a second.” He turned and roared. “Gemma! Gemma! Megan’s here.” He smiled, handed her the fish and greeted the next customer.
Within moments, Gemma appeared. “Come on through, out the back, I’m dying for a fag. My da won’t let me smoke in the shop.” Gemma pulled a cigarette butt from her apron, leaned against a stack of empty crates and lit up. “What a frustrated aul bitch that Rita is. You tackled her after school, didn’t you?”
“I showed her the bruises.”
Gemma’s eyes opened wide. “What’d she say?”
“Ach, you know yourself; all prayer and platitude. She’s not a bad aul soul, but I think you’re right – too long celibate.”
Gemma sucked her butt in rapid puffs, took a final draw and flicked it into the yard. “A good ride’s what she needs. Come to think of it, it’s a good ride all those nuns need. How could they be functioning properly when they’re not utilising God’s gifts. They’re half mad with the hormonal build-up. Not natural – not near right, I tell you. Deranged by dogma, drunk from sexual desire and shy of a good shag – recipe for disaster. It’s as simple as that.”
Megan laughed. “Thank you for that diagnosis, Dr. O’Dowd. Jesus, I wouldn’t like to be taking my sexual problems to you.”
Gemma pushed her. “Come on, I have to get back to work. No kidding, though, Megan, you need to tell somebody what that bastard Taylor’s at. Someday Agnes and you are going to get badly hurt. I told my da. He can’t abide the sight of Taylor. Says you and Aggy’s wasted on him. I think you should go to the guards the next time it happens – and believe me, he’ll do it again.”
Megan nodded. “I know. You’re probably right. Next time, no matter what, I’ll report him.” She looked at her watch. “Jesus, look at the time. I better get a move on. He’ll be home half-cut and there’ll be no tae for him. Then there’ll be murder. I’ll see you Monday.”
Megan hurried down the narrow main street past the row of lace-curtained windows and entered the last terraced house. She removed her tie, kicked off her shoes and rushed to the kitchen. She peeled and boiled the potatoes, fried the fish and cooked the cabbage in the fish oil – just as her stepfather liked it. He arrived home in a drunken, agitated state and complained incessantly about his wife’s absence. He cleared his plate and downed a few more bottles of stout before collapsing onto the sofa.
Megan tidied up and retired to her room. After that, it all happened so fast. She heard footsteps on the stairs. He burst open the bedroom door, jumped on her and placed his hand on her face. She tried to scream but he locked her mouth closed. He pulled up her nightdress, tore off her underwear and forced himself into her. Overcome by shock, agony and the sight of blood, she fainted.
She awoke in bloodstained sheets and screamed for her mother.
Lamb to the slaughter
Agnes Taylor buried her head in the starched white sheets covering her daughter in the Sacred Heart Hospital, Kilgrogan. Emergency surgery requiring internal and external sutures in the genital area had staunched the flow of blood stemming from the assault. Doctors described Megan’s condition as ‘comfortable’. There were no complications and they expected a full recovery.
Agnes thanked God that Megan would pull through, but realised her life would never be the same again. As a mother, she had trusted a man who violated her daughter’s innocence – a fundamental error of judgement for which she could never forgive herself. She married him seeking respectability and her daughter had suffered the consequences. Had she loved him, she could have blamed the power of heart over mind, but she knew better. Love had never entered the equation. She performed her marital duties in a perfunctory manner, fulfilled her husband’s physical needs and hoped that some day her daughter would reap the benefits of coming from what appeared to be, a stable family background.
She looked up as Megan slept and brushed a few strands of soft blond hair from her face. The summer sun had tanned her sallow skin. Her breathing sounded full and relaxed, and only a few minor contusions marred her youthful beauty. As Agnes clasped her hand, tears dripped onto the sheets. She knelt and caressed her child’s body from head to toe, kneading every inch of her own flesh and blood, feeling every twinge of pain pulsate through the palms of her hand. Her baby lay scarred for life. Nothing could ever undo what had been done. Suffer little children – only a cruel God could inflict such suffering on a child.
A doctor stroked her shoulders and advised her to go home. Megan needed to rest. Agnes thrust her head into the doctor’s chest and wept. He patted her back, reassured her Megan would be fine and asked if she wanted a little something to settle herself. She declined the medication, thanked him for his concern and took a lift home in the hospital minibus.
At the sight of Megan’s tie strewn across a chair and her shoes abandoned by the hearth, Agnes burst into tears. She lit the fire, made a cup of tea and tried to collect her thoughts. Staring at the flames and glowing embers, helped her concentration. Unable to postpone the inevitable, she jumped up, grabbed her coat and headed to The Master Arms in the village square.
Friday night revellers packed the tavern, roars of laughter resonated in the smoke-filled air and John Taylor sat at the bar. Agnes saw no one but John Taylor. She made her way straight to him, set a plastic bag beside him and screamed: “You’re a monster! Child molester! Rapist!”
The bar fell silent. Master McGinty rushed out from behind the counter and clutched Agnes by the arm. “Come on now, Agnes, please, this is not the time or the place.”
Agnes pushed him away. “Don’t lay a finger on me, Master Mike McGinty. This is not a school and I’m not one of your pupils. You’re harbouring child molesters.”
John Taylor stared at his reflection in the mirror behind the bar and refused to look round.
“What’s the matter, rapist? Can’t face up to what you’ve done?”
He took another swig of his stout. Agnes ripped open the plastic bag and pulled out the bloodstained sheet that had covered Megan’s bed. She waved it in front of him and held it high for everyone to see. “Look! Look at that, you brute! My child. My only child; butchered like an animal. An innocent youngster, cut down in the prime of her life. A lamb to the slaughter. You’ll rot in prison for this, John Taylor. Do you hear me? You’ll rot in prison for this.”
Master McGinty took Agnes by the arm again. “Come on now, Aggy, or I’ll have to call the guards.”
“Go ahead, call them,” she screamed, as she rolled up the sheet, placed her back against the bar and slid, shaking, to her hunkers.
Peter O’Dowd, the fishmonger, made his way up, put his arms around her and helped her to her feet. “Come on, Aggy, I’ll see that you get home. He turned to her husband. “I think you’d want to be looking for a place to stay, Taylor.”
A few of the younger lads cleared the way for Peter and Agnes, as patrons finished up and began to make their way home.
Megan sat on the soft leather chair by the window and watched the gardener trim the shrubs at the front of the hospital. Now and then he stood back to examine his work, then snipped the stray tails that had escaped him first time round. At lunch he took out his flask, unwrapped his sandwiches and continued to stare at his handiwork while he ate.
She knew her mother would appear about the time the groundsmen stopped to eat. The hospital bus picked up visitors from surrounding areas, dropped them off at 12:30 p.m. and made the journey back forty minutes later. She could determine the arrival of the bus by the gardener’s routine. Agnes had visited twice a day for the last five days, and in the evenings, when no bus ran; she made the six-mile round trip on foot.
Megan still hadn’t discussed the assault with anyone. She found it difficult to deal with the flashbacks that seized control of her memory and forced her to dwell on the events of that evening. She couldn’t eradicate recollections of rough hands between her thighs, the smell of whiskey breath and the grate of coarse stubble against her cheeks. Memories flooded back, no matter how hard she resisted. The sensation of suffocation and the pain of forced penetration tormented her. The agony of torn flesh and the sight of spurting blood made her stomach churn. When she slept, nightmares forced her to waken, screaming and begging for mercy.
Right on cue, her mother appeared at the door of the ward and darted to where Megan sat. She hugged her and opened a worn leather shopping bag. “I brought your favourite today. Home-made vegetable soup and a few slices of wheaten bread.” She took out a flask and removed the bread from a brown paper bag. “Come on, eat now, we need to build up your strength.”
Megan sipped the soup from the steel cup and nibbled the bread as Agnes sat on the edge of the bed and watched. “It’s delicious, Mom, no one can cook like Aggy Taylor.”
Agnes, relieved that Megan appreciated the food, pulled up a chair and sat beside her. She rested her hand on Megan’s lap, stared out the window and waited until she had finished eating before beginning to speak. For the first time, she broached the assault. “Two detectives came to see me. Your stepfather has been taken into custody. They wanted to talk to you, but I wouldn’t let them. I told them you weren’t well enough yet.”
Megan clasped her mother’s hand. “We have to be strong, Mom. We need to do whatever it takes to see that this never happens again – not just to me, but to others as well. These people, this country, it’s all wrong. Women have rights, but we must fight to enforce them.”
Agnes stroked her daughter’s arm. “You’re upset, pet, you’re in pain and God love you, you’re fretted. You have every right to feel this way. John Taylor needs to pay for what he did and I’ll see that he does.”
“I know, Mom, I know, but it’s you I’m thinking of too.”
Agnes leaned back. “Me? What do you mean, me?”
“The abuse you’ve taken over the years. How could you let him treat you that way and never say a word?”
“Ah now, don’t be worrying about me. Sure didn’t he put a roof over our heads and didn’t we get you into the best school? I’ll tell you something, Megan, only for him, I wouldn’t have the good job cleaning in the convent and you wouldn’t have been admitted as a pupil.”
“You could have found another job and I could have looked for a different school.”
Agnes sighed. “Life’s not that simple, I wish it were. Anyway, he’s still my husband and I have to live with that.”
Megan jumped up. “You’re living in denial. He has raped you too and you won’t admit it. I can’t take any more of this. How often has he hit you? How often has he beaten me and you’ve tried to excuse it because he drank too much? How much longer are you going to cover for him? Even now. You’re weak. You’re pathetic. It’s because of you I’m here. It’s because he knew he could get away with it that he raped me. You and your home-made bread and your stupid soup. Do you think for one minute I’m going to get better because you’re feeding me?”
Megan’s high-pitched outcry alerted staff. Two nurses ran over. One put her arms around her and ushered her to bed, the other spoke to Agnes. “You need to go now, Mrs. Taylor, you’re upsetting her. Please, she’s been through a lot.”
Agnes screwed the cup onto the top of the flask, placed it in her bag and turned to go. She had taken a few steps when Megan shouted after her. “I suppose you’re going to take some wheaten bread to your husband in jail. You probably need to build his strength up, too, so he can beat us more.”
Her mother lowered her head, kept walking and didn’t look back.
Agnes stopped at the baker’s on the way home and bought Megan’s favourite crusty loaf. She boiled two eggs, beat them up in a cup, added butter and spread the mix on three slices of fresh bread. When the kettle boiled, she made a cup of tea, ate one of the round’s of bread and wrapped-up the other two for Megan. As she stacked a few pieces of turf on the fire and pulled on her flat shoes, someone knocked on the front door. She hurried to open it, conscious of her need to leave within minutes for work.
A tall, red-faced man with grey hair, greeted her. “Hello, Agnes,” he said, in a soft voice. “May I come in?”
Agnes stepped back, opened the door wide and bowed her head. “Canon McCleary, how are you? Lovely to see you, come in surely. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be rude, but I’ve only a few minutes to spare, I’m rushing out to work.”
Canon McCleary nodded, entered the hallway and waited for her to close the door.
“Come on ahead,” she said, leading him to the living room. “You’re very welcome, I’ll make you a quick cup of tea and then I’ll be off.”
He took a seat by the fire. “I’ll pass on the tea, thanks, Agnes. Pull up a seat and don’t be worrying about work.”
Agnes sat on the armrest of the sofa. “God, Canon, I can’t be late, the nuns are awful good to me and I wouldn’t want them to think I’m taking advantage of them.”
“You’re okay now, Agnes, nobody will be thinking that, don’t be annoying yourself. I’m just after coming from the convent – that’s the reason I’m here.”
Agnes slid down onto the seat, and braced herself. “Oh?”
“Yes, but there’s nothing to worry about. I spoke to the Mother Superior and we’ve arranged for you to take a couple of weeks off. You’ve been through a lot and we thought we’d do the Christian thing and give you a bit of time to pull yourself together.”
“That’s very kind of you Canon . . . and Mother Martha too, but I feel okay and to tell you the truth, I need the money.”
“Don’t be concerning yourself with money now, Agnes. Sure haven’t you enough to be thinking about? That’s all taken care of. Go to the school secretary on Friday, tell her I sent you, and your wages will be waiting for you. There’s nothing more to it.”
“But the other women, Canon, they need help. The school’s hard enough to clean at the best of times let alone when one of us is absent.”
Canon McCleary raised his hand. “Agnes, enough. I’ll hear nothing more; don’t be ungrateful now. Anyway, you and I have more important matters to talk about.” He looked beyond her to the kitchen. “Maybe I will take that cup of tea, if you’re making a drop.”
“Of course, certainly, Canon. What about something to eat?”
“What have you?”
“I just made a few egg sandwiches for Megan.”
He looked at his watch. “Those will do fine . . . until I get my dinner.”
Agnes scurried to the kitchen, boiled the kettle, searched for her best cups and served the tea and sandwiches to the portly priest by the fire. When he finished eating, he handed her his cup and plate, sat upright and rubbed his hands together. “You wouldn’t have a halving of whiskey in the house, Agnes, by any chance, would you?”
“I would surely, Canon.” She jumped up and retrieved a bottle from the side cabinet.
“Easy on the water,” he added, as she skipped to the kitchen to make the drink.
He took a sip of the whiskey, brushed a few sandwich crumbs from his suit and took out his cigarettes. Lighting one, he inhaled deeply, blew his smoke towards the fire and paused. “This is a nasty business, Agnes, this carry-on with John and the wee lassie.”
“Terrible, Canon, terrible.”
The priest took another pull on his cigarette. “Poor John, the drink can be an awful scourge at times. It can put a man’s head away.”
Agnes fidgeted. “You don’t have to tell me that.”
“Good of him to take on the responsibility of yourself and the illegitimate youngster. Not many men would have done it. These blades nowadays, too, an awful lot of them brazen young hussies – throw themselves at men. Tempt them, like the devil himself.”
Agnes nodded. Canon McCleary reached her his empty glass. “I’ll have another, please. Don’t worry about the water.”
When she came back with his drink, he flicked his butt into the fire and took a long swig from the glass. “Truth is, Agnes, this matter needs to be sorted out – quietly. John has done a lot of good work for the parish over the years and we can’t have some wee American lass, who he protected by taking under his own roof, destroying his reputation. Do you hear what I’m saying, Agnes?”
“What do you think . . .?”
Canon McCleary raised his hand and silenced her. “I’m having none of it, now. I’m taking no nonsense. This matter needs to be resolved.” He handed her his glass. “I’ll have another quick one before I go.”
Agnes poured him a straight whiskey. “I wanted to ask you, Canon, what you thought I should do?”
“Good question. I heard about you making a spectacle of yourself in The Master Arms. You, above all people. Say nothing to anyone and mind your own business. The parish will see to John’s bail and there’ll be no case to answer here. Talk to that girl of yours and tell her to behave herself. I hear she’s writing all kinds of sensationalist trash in school too. She’d want to be careful; there are plenty of good Catholic girls looking for a place in the convent.”
Canon McCleary, looked at his watch, bounced up and handed Agnes his empty glass. “I have to go, dinner will be ready soon and I’m hearing confessions this evening. That’s everything sorted out now anyway. Good day to you.”
As Agnes opened the front door, he turned. “By the way, don’t let that girl say anything to the police. I’ve heard there’s a few boys down from the city trying to make a name for themselves. The sergeant tells me, the less said, the better. There’ll be nothing said to bring this parish into disrepute, Agnes. Do you hear me?”
Agnes closed the door behind him.