Authors: Nina de Gramont
It was difficult to see beyond the windscreen, between the darkness and her eyes, puffed to slits from crying. Otherwise she might have seen him earlier, the man who walked down the middle of the road, trying to flag her down, his long arms waving in and out over his head in an ‘X’ formation. As it was, she nearly ran him down to his death. It felt to her like the last moment, when she swerved to miss him, realizing – again at the last moment – that if she didn’t put on the brakes, she’d fly headlong into the chalk pit.
Not something she longed for, death. Not one bit. The sort of thing you realize, in the instance after an accident almost kills you. And after all, she knew a good bit about poison, between her stint in the dispensary during the war and research for her novels. If she’d wanted to be dead, she already would be.
There was a knock on the driver’s side window. The man she’d swerved to avoid killing leaned down, staring at her with unnerving calm, as if all this were perfectly normal. Perhaps now he’d kill
, but she rolled down the window anyway. Black hair fell into his eyes, and his breath gusted in the cold air. From his coat and jumper she recognized him as the same fellow who’d given Teddy the whittled dog.
‘Are you quite all right?’ He had a raspy Irish brogue and soulful blue eyes.
‘I believe I am.’
‘I’m sorry if I startled you.’
‘Startled me? My dear, you ran me quite off the road.’
He opened the door to her car, so she could get out. She felt it again, the awareness that perhaps she ought to be afraid of him. The car wobbled precariously, and she saw its front wheels were hanging over the pit. It struck her again with the force of averted tragedy, how very much she wanted to be alive.
‘I’ve come to talk to you about Nan O’Dea,’ the young man said.
Oh, the impudence. The way the world was unfolding before her. An awful dream. Wake up, she commanded herself. Wake up, wake up. She closed her eyes, determined to open them and find herself home in bed with her own husband. Even as the cold air insisted she was out on the road in the dead of night, confronted by a stranger wanting to discuss the most intimate horror of her life.
‘Mrs Christie,’ the Irishman said. ‘I think we might be able to help each other. You and I.’ He had a nice face.
, her mother would have said. A handsome young man with an aura of kindness about him, if sadly lacking any humour. She raised her hands and placed them over her face.
‘There now,’ the Irishman said. She removed her hands and, gently, he touched her cheek just below her eye, where a tear would have fallen. ‘We’ll have time for tears later, won’t we? It’s cold and there’s some travelling to do.’
‘I don’t know if my car will start.’ As if this were the reason not to go with him. Not even considering that she’d be travelling with this stranger. Not even worrying that she must have gone mad not to at least try to back up and drive away, fast as possible.
‘We’ll leave it,’ the Irishman said. ‘That’ll give them something to worry about, won’t it? As luck would have it, we’re both up and about after dark. And I’ve recently come upon a vehicle nobody seems to be using.’
‘Abandoned not far from here, on the grass by the road. I’ve borrowed it.’
‘So you’ll be returning it, then?’ Her voice was sceptical and pointed.
‘If I can.’
There was a melancholy to his voice that pinched Agatha’s already vulnerable heart. ‘How lucky,’ she said, suddenly wanting to be forgiving. ‘The luck of the Irish, I suppose.’
A rasping sound, the sad echo of a laugh that never was. ‘I’m afraid to say I’ve not found much truth in that expression.’
Ah, she thought, the light dawning. This was Nan’s young man. She’d scarcely paid attention to what the girl had said
about her past the other day at Simpson’s. Now she narrowed her eyes, unsure of what to do. The last thing she needed was another man in love with Nan O’Dea.
Still, she stepped out of the car and placed her hand in his. He nodded, as if proud of her for making the right decision, and she decided to let herself be convinced and give herself over to his care. The scene she’d planned in Godalming would be of no use. But this fellow could be.
‘You gather what you need,’ he said, ‘and I’ll bring the other car round.’
Dazed enough to forget her hastily packed suitcase, Agatha transferred the most immediate necessities – her sponge bag, her typewriter – into a roomy Bentley. Before getting into it she stopped a moment, and stared longingly at her own car. You must understand how she adored that vehicle. How proud she was of buying it herself, with money earned from her writing. Perhaps, right now, someone was sitting in front of a fire, unable to sleep, turning the pages of her latest novel,
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
. The embodiment of that, to her, was the wonderful little car, now teetering on the brink of destruction, just like her life.
Very well, then. She’d leave it behind for another.
The Irishman drove. It always seemed right to Agatha, when a man and woman were in a car together, that the man should drive. The road lay ahead of them, empty and bleak, stars shining down, the moon a waning crescent. The barest wind snuck through the windows, shaking in their frames. This car was not so well kept as her own.
How rarely she ever found herself awake and about in the darkened world. The man sitting next to her, driving, was such an entirely different presence to her husband. And just in that
moment, only half awake, only half believing in the ruin her life had become, Agatha realized her skin fit again. She found herself thinking or, more accurately, feeling:
What an adventure.
Here Lies Sister Mary
EARS AFTER MY
stay at the convent – years after my stay at the Bellefort Hotel – I had another baby, a girl whom I named after my Aunt Rosie. I would have liked to have had more children, but, for Archie, one child from each of his wives was enough. He never wanted too much of my attention taken from him. Committed to being the wife he wanted, it was easy enough for me to spend the days lavishing love on my child and the evenings lavishing love on my husband. Unlike Agatha, I never became a writer. For me that possibility fell away.
It’s all right. I loved being a mother and I loved my little Rosie. But a hundred babies, a thousand, would never make up for the loss of the first.
. That’s what the nuns told us we’d done. Fallen away.
Mr Mahoney called the convent a charity.
The Sisters will take good care of you.
But to me it felt awfully like the workhouse I was lucky to have avoided. Later, I learned the history. Somewhere between 1900 and 1906, Pelletstown, the first special institution for unwed mothers, had been established in County Dublin. Not long afterwards, the convent at Sunday’s Corner
followed suit. In exchange for what they called our safe haven, we would labour without pay until our babies were born. Then we would stay on another two or three years, working. Our children would remain in the convent – first in the nursery and then on the other side of that high cement wall – until they were adopted, fostered out, or moved to an orphanage. We were meant to go to the county hospital in Cork City to deliver two weeks before our babies were due, but that spring, a girl’s water broke during lawn duty, when she swung a heavy scythe to cut the grass. She gave birth on a mattress by the laundry room with no doctor or nurse, only a few other girls in attendance. Afterwards, the nuns drove her and her baby to hospital in their farm truck. Ten days later, she was back on the front lawn, pulling daisies and weeds, and wielding the scythe where needed.
There were girls who worked the convent farm – tending ducks, milking cows and digging potatoes – under the close watch of the nuns. But I was kept inside the gates. Perhaps the nuns saw escape in my eyes. I tended their graveyard, did the laundry and scrubbed floors on my hands and knees. Each night I fell onto my bed exhausted to the core of my being. From growing a child inside me; from worry; from being so far from home; from waking each day at five for prayers and Mass, then labouring till 6.30 p.m. in the evening. And, perhaps most exhausting of all, from loving Finbarr. From waiting for him to recover, return to consciousness and come fetch me. A rumour persisted among the girls that, a few years ago, someone’s beau had shown up and paid the Mother Superior for her release. Father Joseph had married the couple in the parish church. Not all the girls were pregnant by boys they loved. But those who were, myself included, counted on this fantasy as our only hope. I refused to consider Finbarr’s death a possibility. We weren’t
allowed to send or receive letters but surely his parents would tell him where I was, and he’d come for me. I didn’t start wishing for him to come for
until the first day my baby kicked.
Bess, Fiona, Susanna and I were working in the basement laundry over boiling, soapy cauldrons. The floor was tiled, a pattern of large grey squares and smaller blue and pink squares, a cruel commemoration of the babies most of us wouldn’t be allowed to keep. Heat from the fires kept my forehead slick with sweat as I stirred sheets and napkins with a long wooden stick. All of a sudden, my child moved inside my body: unmistakably, distinctly, gracefully. I froze with the magnitude of falling in love. Children have moved in the womb since the dawn of man but never had any child moved in just this way. A somersault, toes grazing my insides, sending up a fountain of bubbles. I stopped, startled, and put my hand on my belly.
Bess stopped stirring and smiled. ‘It’s like magic, isn’t it?’
We weren’t supposed to become friends, or talk to each other, or even know each other’s names. But of course we did. Girls thrown together find friends sure as night follows day. I’d insisted Bess and Fiona memorize my family’s address in London, so we could write to each other if this ever ended.
‘Was it real?’ I asked Bess, rubbing my hand over the spot where I’d felt the movement.
‘Sure it was.’ Bess was further along than me, but she was so narrow and slight you could barely see the pregnancy beneath her apron and shapeless dress. ‘Did you think you were in all this trouble for the sake of a mirage?’
I laughed. The sound startled me, it had been so long since I’d heard such a sound from myself or anyone around me.
‘Can’t you be quiet?’ Susanna snapped. She hated breaking rules. Susanna was the oldest girl in the convent, somewhere in
her thirties. This was her second stay here. Last time her baby had been adopted at six months, and she’d remained another year before being released as a maid to a local family, only to return, pregnant again, five years later.
Sister Mary Clare, the youngest and kindest nun, came in to check on us. She was lenient enough not to chastise us for talking. The room filled with her humming, a haunting Gaelic tune that trailed her like a mist wherever she went. Unlike some of the other nuns, she didn’t have a strap attached to her habit. Also unlike the other nuns, she was not Irish but English. The sound of her voice was a comfort to me. On one of my first days at the convent I had asked her how she had come to Ireland.
‘My father was Irish,’ she’d told me. ‘When I was a girl he sent me here to work for relatives.’
My heart jumped with recognition.
The nun said, in a sad and dreamy voice, ‘It didn’t go as I’d thought.’ It was the only time I ever saw her look anything but jolly.
Since that day I’d thought of her less as a nun and more like one of the girls. Sister Mary Clare, I was sure, had arrived at the convent by means of hardship. When she came into the laundry room I didn’t hurry back to work but stood exactly as I had been, hands out of the sink, fingers spread wide over my belly.
‘Did the baby move?’ Sister Mary Clare asked. She stepped close, putting one arm around me, and one soft hand on my stomach.
‘Good work, Mother,’ she said, then took out her own handkerchief and wiped my brow. She was only about ten years older than me, with a clear, unlined face, plain but made bright by
smiling. None of the other nuns would ever call us ‘mother’. They only called us ‘girls’.
I set straight back to work. My baby rustled again, and all of a sudden I was not, as I’d thought, alone. There was someone else here with me, a member of my family, the closest person to me there had ever been in the world. Bess turned her eyes back to her washing, but I could see a little smile at the edges of her lips. The two of us, keeping each other company in the love we had for our babies.
Another nun, Sister Mary Declan, poked her head into the room and said, ‘Father Joseph’s asking for you, Bess.’ Unlike her younger colleague, Sister Mary Declan
wear a strap tied to her habit and seldom hesitated to use it, no matter how young or pregnant the girl. We cast our eyes downwards. Bess’s smile disappeared, but she wiped her hands on her apron and dutifully followed the nun. Sister Mary Clare went along with them.
‘Poor dear,’ said Fiona, watching Bess leave. ‘But I suppose the Father knows what’s best for us, doesn’t he?’