Margaret paused as Sister Josephine unlocked yet another door. They walked through and Margaret paused as Sister Josephine locked it. They walked, paused, walked and paused. Margaret flexing her bleached prune hands nervously. She did not waste her breath asking the Sister where she was going. She had already guessed. Annoyed at her own nerves, she pushed her hands under her arms and kept them there. She would not show these people fear. They would not break her. Her back ached, her knees ached, her eyes ached and though only twenty-one, she had begun to see grey in her closely cropped auburn hair. She had washed countless tons of strangers’ clothes in her two years at the laundry, but she was not broken. She was slim, beautiful and unbroken, but she had never been sent out on service before. She had heard stories from the other young women about what happened to those who were rented out by the Sisters. She was scared, but she would not allow them see it.
Finally Sister Josephine opened the last door and silently ushered Margaret through. Margaret heard the door close behind her as she looked at the empty office she’d entered. As she was about to exhale her tension another door opened and The Mother walked in, all fat ugly superiority and false bonhomie. With her was a man in his late fifties, a priest, he was deeply tanned, well dressed and more than willing to be entertained by The Mother’s good humour. Margaret stood to attention. The Mother did not acknowledge her, neither did the Priest. Money was handed over and the Priest rose to leave. He looked at Margaret and indicated with his fedora, that she should go before him. She looked at The Mother, who gave Margaret the merest of nods and a look that was at once sneering, knowing and gleeful. Margaret was untouched by the woman’s behavior, she could not hate The Mother anymore than she already did. She walked out into the sunlight and felt momentarily free.
The Priest, walked towards a car and opened the rear door for Margaret. She looked at him in confusion. She did not see it as kindness, he was renting her after all, but the experience of politeness had been almost forgotten by Margaret. She slowly got in and sat on the leather seat. He closed the door and rounded the car to the driver’s door. He sat in, started the engine and drove off. They drove in silence for an hour. Margaret allowed herself to look at the countryside speeding by and to imagine what it would feel like, to again wander a field, or enjoy a stroll through a wood. Then the dream began to turn to hope and she had to stamp it down. It was not safe to hope. She had seen too many of the other women go mad on hope. Hope was a dangerous thing. She squeezed her hands into tight fists and addressed the Priest.
“Am I to be doing your cleaning or did you get me to use me?”
The car swerved. The Priest fought to regain control of it and when he did so, he pulled into the side of road and stopped the car. He got out and walked to the bonnet. He sat against it hard and searched his pockets. He found cigarettes and a lighter. He lit a cigarette and slowly smoked it. Margaret watched him silently. He was no taller than she, at about five and half foot. Hewas over-weight and though his tan could not disguise his love of drink, he still looked fit. She would not be able to fight him. The question was, should she fight him or should she keep her battles in her head. He finished his cigarette and got back in. He started the engine and continued their journey in silence. Margaret’s tension grew.
She began to lose track of time and drifted in and out of sleep. The Priest did not speak and Margaret was content to leave him in silence, though she knew that the further they drove, the worse things were probably going to be for her. She jerked awake as the car left the road and drove up a narrow, gravel track. The road led up a steep hill and the car was beginning to struggle with the surface and the incline. She judged it to be sometime in the afternoon when the Priest parked the car among some trees. She fought to control her fear. This was it then. He got out of the car and opened her door and sat in beside her. She pushed herself as far away from him as possible and waited for him to indicate what he was going to do to her. He held out his hand to her and smiled reassuringly,
“Hello Margaret, my name is Father Phillips. Robert sent me.”
He spoke in a rich Donegal brogue, an accent that Margaret had always liked. She sat there, unmoving, looking at his hand and wondering if a particular accent could make a man more attractive or conversely less attractive. He kept his hand out, waiting for her to shake it.
“Did you not hear me girl, Robert sent me.”
Tears began to roll down Margaret’s cheeks. This was a game too cruel, even for one who had endured the loss of lover, child and freedom. Why would he not just use her and be done with it? What sick joy could he find in mocking her like this? Father Philips, looked at her with growing concern. He began to move closer to her and she recoiled violently. He quickly moved as far back from her as he could.
“I’m sorry child, I didn’t mean to scare you. I don’t know what those nuns did, but I promise you, all that is over.”
She looked at him, eyes red, tears streaming.
He nodded at her gently.
“Yes Margaret, he said to tell you that he changed his mind, daffodils are beautiful.”
Margaret sobbed a laugh through her tears. She took Father Philips’ hand and he placed his other hand on top of hers. They sat there as she cried. Her hand in his. When her shoulders stopped shaking she looked at him.
“He never liked daffodils, though they are my favorite. Come the Spring we always fought over it. Were you with him in Spain Father? Were you with him at the end?”
Father Phillips nodded at her gravely.
“We were on opposite sides Margaret, but I was with him.”
“You saw him die?”
“I was there yes.”
Margaret nodded and lapsed into silence for a time, then she spoke again in a wistful voice.
“If he’d waited just another week, he’s have known about the baby. We could have got married, or left the country together. I kept it a secret as long as I could, hoping he would come back in time. Then I got the letter from the Irish Brigade man in Dublin, saying he had been caught and executed. Then I was packed off to the Laundry and when I had my little Daniel, they took him from me. They took my baby Father.”
“I know Margaret.”
Father Philips hurriedly got out of the car and opened the boot. He called out to Margaret to join him. She timidly got out of the car and walked to him. He handed her an overcoat. She put it on as he took out a basket of food and a pair of military issue field-glasses. He slammed the boot closed and began to walk through the trees. Margaret could think of nothing better to do than follow him. After a short walk they crested a hill and they saw a large stone building below them. Father Phillips nodded in satisfaction and placed the basket on the ground. He opened it and took out a blanket. He spread it out and sat down. As he sat, his jacket opened and Margaret noticed that he had a handgun in his belt. She looked away from it, pretending not to have seen it. When Father Philips was comfortably seated, he invited Margaret to join him on the blanket. She licked her lips nervously but began to bend her legs to sit next to him. He looked away and Margaret immediately reached down and grabbed the gun from his belt.
It was too large for her to hold with one hand but she was still able to cock it and aim it at Father Phillips. He looked at her calmly, from the other side of the barrel.
“Don’t look so calm priest, I may as well hang for being a murderer as be locked away for being a whore. You were an enemy of Robert and you take me out of that Laundry and you carry a gun, what is it you want?”
Father Phillip looked at her sympathetically and then pointed down the hill.
“I owe Robert a debt Margaret, I owe him my life. Down there, in that sorrowful looking building, is where we’ll find Daniel.”
Margaret’s resolve cracked slightly. Her hands less steady as she held the gun. She looked at the building and then snapped her head back to Father Phillips, though she could not resist looking again at the building. More tears appeared in her eyes. She stepped towards the seated priest and with the gun pointed straight at his head she spoke in a halting voice, part pleading, part deadly earnest.
“If you are playing me for a fool, priest, I will kill you.”
Father Phillips noted how she pronounced priest, as one would a curse and he saw in her eyes the implacable will, to make good her threat.
“I returned to Ireland five months ago Margaret. I have done nothing in that time, but search for you and Daniel and plan your escape. He is down there and tonight, we will snap him up. I promise.”
Margaret examined his face for lies and when she was satisfied that she could wring no more certainty from him, she collapsed onto her knees. She handed him the gun, which he quickly uncocked and put away. He would have hugged her, but he already knew her well enough not to impose too much kindness. Instead he handed her the binoculars. She took them and sat down and began to examine the orphanage.
He watched her for several moments. He took a sandwich from the basket and placed it in her hand. She accepted it and began to eat it, never taking the glasses from her face. He looked at his watch and then at the sky and lay back to take a nap.
He woke up as dusk was beginning to grey the sky and he found Margaret still peering through the binoculars. He sighed in sympathy and looked in the basket for a sandwich. All that had been left to him was an apple and a bottle of tepid beer. Only then did Margaret look away from the building.
“Sorry Father Philips.”
He quickly found a smile to give her.
“Ah sure I can well afford to miss a meal or two lass.”
She nodded at him, agreeing with him and returned to the glasses. Father Phillips tried again.
“When did you eat last?”
“Yesterday lunch time.”
“I did not move quickly enough for Sister Marie. A day without food was my penance.”
“Did that happen often?”
“I wouldn’t have starved.”
She spoke as if describing the weather. Father Philips looked at her in the growing dark and had to quickly stifle his curiosity. They had things to do and no time to explore her experiences at the hands of the Sisters. He stood up and Margaret ceased her staring and stood too. He took a flash light from the basket and checked to see that it worked. Satisfied he put the blanket away and nodded to Margaret.
“It’s been two years Father.”
Father Phillips paused, confused.
“What if I don’t recognise him Father?”
He hadn’t thought of that, but was able to answer her quickly.
“Sure we have his name.”
Margaret looked at him, pity and scorn on her face, at his naivete.
“They always change their names priest.”
Father Philips could only stare at her in silence. During all his planning it had never occurred to him that a mother would not be able to recognise her child. He cursed himself for his stupidity. Two years. Two years. He shook himself and took Margaret by the shoulders.
“Don’t fret Margaret, they’ll have records. Even if it takes all night, we’ll find him.”
Margaret nodded at him, desperate to believe him. They began to descend the hill, darkness now all but shrouding the massive institution. Only a few ground floor windows emitting light.
They approached an open window at the back of the building. Father Phillips pulled it all the way open and quickly climbed through it. Margaret followed. He switched on his torch and examined the room they were in. It was a small kitchen, Margaret assumed it was for the staff. She stood close to the priest and whispered in his ear.
“Do you know where we need to go?”
He nodded and whispered back to her.
“I visited here about a dozen times, the files are in an office two floors up and the children are in wards just above us. Office first, then Daniel.”
Margaret clutched at the sleeve of his jacket.
“How did he die Father?”
Father Phillips looked at her in amazement.
“You ask that here?”
“The Irish Brigade man didn’t know and thought it better that way. But everyone knows what Franco did to prisoners. Did he suffer?”
“Lets get Daniel and I’ll tell you everything.”
She squeezed his sleeve even harder but then let go of it. He sighed in relief and began to walk before she asked more questions. He opened the door onto an unlit corridor and turned left. Margaret followed closely in his wake. They walked by the light of Father Philipps’ torch, for what seemed to Margaret, an eternity. They found the office and went inside. Father Phillips switched on the light and smiled at Margaret.
“So far so good my dear.”
She didn’t return his smile and instead walked towards the several filing cabinets.
“Where do we start?”
Father Philips allowed his shoulders to drop a little. Perhaps only he was feeling excited by this night’s escapades. It was like being back in Spain, but without the horror. He joined her at the filing cabinets.
“I think they file by year.”
They found the 1937 cabinet and opened it. They were too busy examining files to notice Sister Michelle walk into the office. The Sister exclaimed in surprise and it was Margaret who reacted first, by running across the office and punching Sister Michelle square on the jaw. The Sister dropped to the floor, out cold. Father Phillips looked as Margaret as she stood, breathing heavily, fists clenched, staring down at the prone nun. Margaret looked back at him, a guilty smile on her lips.
“For hitting her?”
“No, for enjoying it so much.”
“Ah sure, once you’re sorry.”
He dropped the files he was holding in frustration and went to examine the nun. He lifted her up and dragged and carried her to a chair. He sat her on it and then moved a chair so that he could sit opposite her.
“What are you doing Father?”
“I can’t make sense of the files Margaret, so I’m going to get what we need from the Sister here.”
“What makes you think she’ll tell you anything Father?”
The Priest smiled at her as he pulled out a purple stole and hung it round his shoulders.
“I will take her confession.”
“I will take her confession.”
“You can’t just make someone confess something against their will. It’s not right.”
“It’s not right, but very effective. Would you prefer we left without Daniel?”
Margaret looked at him in horror.
“Is this the sort of thing you did in Spain?”
Father Phillips looked at her coldly.
“What type of bastard are you?”
“The bastard who is going to get your child back.”
There was a murmur of returning consciousness from the felled nun.
“Robert didn’t believe in God, you could have had no power over him.”
“No I didn’t, but he had power over me. We made a bargain he and I, my life for your rescue.”
Margaret looked at Father Phillips in disgust.
“My Robert would not make any sort of deal with the likes of you.”
“He was going to die Margaret, I was all he had.”
“How did he die?”
“After we get Daniel.”
“And you can make her talk?”
“That was my job in Spain.”
Sister Michelle murmured louder and Father Philips stood up and faced Margaret and began to speak very quickly.
“After I was ordained, I was posted to Paris. There I discovered, art, architecture, literature, wine and women. I lived the high life, until I was caught in the company of a widow, who ran a rather large and popular brothel. As punishment I was sent to serve in Franco’s army. My job was to mine the peasants for intelligence on the rebels. So thats the kind of man and priest I am. Now, do you want me to take her confession?”
Margaret backed away from him, shock written on her face, but she nodded her head.
“Good, now hide behind that curtain and don’t make a sound.”
He turned and sat down again and took Sister Michelle by the hand and stroked it as she came to. Margaret could hear his soothing coos. How could Robert have trusted this man?
Sister Michelle opened her eyes and saw a priest, with his stole, holding her hand. She whipped her hand back and sat up guiltily.
“You’re that Father Phillips. You’ve been around here a few times.”
“That’s right Sister.”
“I’m not a Sister.”
“I’m not a nun.”
“My apologies child, I just assumed that you were. And what is your name?”
“Ah Michelle, named for the archangel Michael, who led God’s armies against Satan. A fine name.”
Michelle looked at him uncertainly.
“Thank you Father.”
“Now my child, I am ready to hear your confession.”
“Why else would I be here child?”
“But, but, I don’t understand?”
“Let us just say that a mutual friend has expressed worry about your immortal soul.”
Michelle looked at him in dread.
“What did they say?”
“Will you give me your confession child, then all that can be put behind you?”
Michelle looked around her, seeking escape.
“You have no reason to fear me child, what passes between us is only heard by God.”
Margaret felt pierced through the heart for her part in this betrayal of trust. Michelle began to cry silently.
“There is a burden on you child that I would lift from you, all you have need do, is open your heart to God.”
Michelle began to speak, hesitantly at first.
“Bless me Father for I have sinned, it has been two months since my last confession.”
“That’s it child, the healing has already begun. Tell me about him.”
Margaret had to stifle a gasp of shock as Michelle began to sob.
“His name is Mark, Father.”
“And you love him?”
“I do Father, but he is a second son and neither of us have the money to emigrate and no prospect of it neither.”
“And have you been less than modest with this boy Michelle.”
“No Father, but I’ve been fierce tempted.”
“You are a good woman Michelle, but I suspect, not wholly pure.”
Michelle looked away in shame and murmured her reply.
“No Father, we would do a lot of kissing and it made me want to do more. I had to break from him Father, or risk shaming myself. That’s why I work here, to remind myself what would happen if I gave in.”
“You are an example to womanhood Michelle.”
Margaret snarled in silent disgust.
“Now tell me of the sins in your mind, child. How did you turn away from God?”
Michelle stared at Father Phillips in silent horror.
“Unburden yourself my child and God will forgive all.”
“I had thoughts Father.”
“About Mark, about that which you were so strong to resist?”
“Yes Father, I dreamed and sometimes imagined giving into his lust.”
“Was there touching Michelle.”
She began to cry in earnest, nodding a yes to his question.
“Satan is ever searching for those thoughts in us Michelle, once one surrenders to them, Satan is in us.”
“I’m so sorry Father.”
“I know you are child, but this sickness must be tackled. Tell me, do you find yourself out of countenance more and more?”
“Have you allowed your temper to rule you?”
Again she nodded.
“Have any of the children here suffered your temper?”
She squeaked an answer.
“That is grave my child. And your penance must be equally harsh.”
What colour was left in Michelle’s cheeks fled.
“How much money would you need to get to America with Mark?”
Michelle stared at him in confusion.
Father Phillips put some steel into his voice.
“I am sure you have done the calculations child, when you have not been defiling the Temple of God that is your body.”
“Seventy-eight pound, three shillings Father.”
“Behind you is a locked cabinet. The key is in that desk drawer over there. Get the key and open it.”
Michelle rose and retrieved the key. She opened the cabinet and revealed a safe. She looked back at Father Phillips.
“You may sit again child and begin to recite the Rosary for me, with your eyes tightly closed.”
Michelle sat, squeezed her eyes shut and began to pray. Father Philips stood and approached the safe. He looked at it for several moments before taking a small bag from his pocket. He took some metal pins from it and began to work on the lock. In a very short time he had the safe unlocked. Inside it he saw several stacks of cash. He carefully counted out eighty pound, put it in his pocket and closed the safe. He returned to his seat.
“You may stop praying child.”
Michelle stopped and opened her eyes.
“Tell me child, how long have you worked here?”
“Three years Father.”
“You must have seen a great many children in that time child?”
“And these files record them all?”
“Yes Father, by year and the name of the Priest and local Garda who had the mother committed.”
“That is good to know. Are you ready for your penance child?”
Michelle nodded. Too terrified to speak.
“You have allowed lust into your heart, mind and body child. There is no remedy for that except the sacrament of marriage. You must marry this man who has enflamed your loins.”
“Whist now child, this very night you will take an infant from this place and go straight to Mark. By morning you must be on a boat to America.”
He handed Michelle the cash he had taken.
“Your soul lays on a precipice my child, Satan is waiting for you to fall. And he is certain of his prize. He has made the sex-act a thing of pleasure to tempt you into the destruction of your soul. But God gifted us Holy Matrimony to thwart Satan’s vile designs.”
Michelle looked at Father Philips in rapt awe.
“On the very day you land in America, find yourself a Priest and be married. In the marriage bed there is no sin, no fault and no reason to fear Satan’s siren call. Do you hear me child?”
She looked at the money in her hand and then turned to look at the safe.
“No child, you will never be able to return.”
Michelle nodded. Understanding.
“That’ll be no regret for me Father.”
“Then away with you child, love that baby as if it was your own, Find happiness and may the Grace of God go with you.”
Michelle paused only to push the fistful of notes into her pocket, before fleeing the room. Margaret left her hiding space and walked to Father Phillips and slapped him hard across the face.
“I hope there’s a special place in hell for the likes of you priest.”
Father Phillis rubbed his reddened cheek and shrugged.
“At least now we know what we are looking for.”
“How did you know about that Mark fella?”
“There’s always a Mark.”
Margaret looked as if she would strike him again.
“And why steal a baby?”
“Tomorrow they will discover two children missing and money gone from the safe. I’ve just bought you a whole heap of breathing space.”
She allowed herself only a sneer of contempt for the priest before returning to the files. In under five minutes they found Daniel, his new name and the bed he was in.
They walked towards the wards where the children slept and silently walked past a sleeping nun. They found the correct bed and Father Phillis went to pick the small boy up, but Margaret held his hand back.
“How can we be certain it’s him priest?”
Father Phillips looked at her in consternation, but he paused. He looked at the child closely and then reached for his collar. He pulled it back slightly and shone his torch on it. The name matched the file. He turned Margaret for agreement, but all he saw was her looking at the boy, with tear glistening eyes. She gently lifted Daniel from his bed and they quickly retraced their steps.
Daniel did no more than murmur as they collected the picnic basket and reached the car. Margaret sat in the back, cradling him, crying softly. Father Phillips drove fast and hard. He was two counties away by the time dawn began to light his way. He stopped in front of a house in a large town and they got out. He opened the front door and ushered Margaret in.
“I rented this place a month ago. Your name is Mary and you are my house-keeper, your husband is in England.”
Margaret nodded and went upstairs to find a bedroom. She carefully laid Daniel on the bed, but could not bring herself to move away from him or even stop stroking his hair. In time Father Phillips joined her in the bedroom. She spoke without turning.
“We had an agreement priest.”
“Yes we did. What do you wish to know?”
“How did Robert die?”
“Are you certain you want to know that Margaret?”
“One day Daniel will ask about his Father, I need to be able to give him the truth. Robert was a man who always put great store in the truth. I don’t believe in truth anymore, but I won’t allow Daniel grow up like that. He will be his father’s son.”
“It was a nasty death Margaret.”
“He was tortured?”
“Did they break him?”
“Is that important?”
“It is the truth that I want priest, not an argument about what is and isn’t important.”
“Is it not enough for Daniel to know that his father fought well and died bravely?”
“The truth priest.”
“I didn’t see him die Margaret.”
She gave him a withering look.
“They tortured him, did they break him?’
Father Phillips flopped down on a chair, defeated. Staring at his hands, he began to speak in a gentle monotone.
“He died screaming Margaret. A whole night they worked on him. No one in the prison slept for his screams. In the end he would have told them anything they wanted. Anything to stop them, anything to hasten his death. The thing is you see, the thing is, he had nothing they wanted. All that they did to Robert was for to break the man in the cell next to his.”
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