The multitude of mourners huddled closely together, trying to garner what protection they could from the icy, driving November rain as the two coffins were lowered into the ground.
“Tragic,” one man whispered to his wife. “What’s going to become of that poor young lass?”
“I suppose she’ll have to go off to Clifden with her grandmother; she has no other relations, I don’t think.”
The chief mourners stood at the side of the grave, a little apart from the rest of the congregation. A girl of sixteen was clutching onto a small grey-haired woman in her mid-sixties. It was impossible to say who was supporting whom. Both were ashen-faced, wearing a dazed expression; the vacant look in their eyes a result of shock and the medication the local doctor had prescribed, the only thing he could offer as a small act of compassion to the tormented souls.
The young girl, five foot six already in spite of her youth, with lily-white skin and hair as black as coal, accentuated by the black mourning clothes, gasped audibly as the priest chanted the words “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust…” Before the first soil was replaced on the coffins, she cast in two red roses, one each for her beloved parents. A heart-wrenching sob emanated from her lips that would live in the memory of those present for a very long time.
“Oh, Granny,” she choked, “this was all my fault. I was just so pleased to be let stay home on my own for the first time, and now God is punishing me.”
“Hush, child, that’s just silly talk. Sure what teenager wouldn’t be glad to get the house to themself? It was a stupid, senseless accident. It’s just sometimes bad things happen and this is about as shit as it gets.” Maeve looked at her grandmother; she had never heard the older woman swear before. But it was clear to Maeve that Bridie was angry at God for letting this happen, rather than at her, as she was holding onto her granddaughter for dear life. Normally the older woman was very undemonstrative of her affections.
It was the day after the funeral when the reality of Maeve’s new life became apparent. Her grandmother told her to pack up all she needed, and the two headed in the car to the deserted hotel in the small town of Clifden, Connemara. Having grown up in Galway city, when Maeve arrived in the sleepy town on that bleak November day, she thought her life was over as surely as her parents’ lives were. Even in her grief, she took in her new home. Before her stood a cut stone building, cut off from the outside world by seven-foot-high stone walls and vast gardens. Built initially as a Magdalene Laundry, industrial school, and convent, the main building, although architecturally magnificent like many of its kind, had served as a prison to many before her. For almost a century, it had been home to the unwanted women of Irish society. Originally set up as a charity to rehabilitate former prostitutes, the Magdalene Laundries soon became an institution to ‘take care of’ unwed mothers, troublesome teenagers, victims of abuse, or parentless, unwanted or difficult children who had outgrown the orphanages. If you were poor, a trip before a magistrate was sure to land you either in a laundry or in an industrial school for a life of servitude, enforced labour, and horrendous physical and mental cruelty. And while Maeve was fully aware her circumstances were a damn sight better than those who entered before, for now it seemed it was to be her own private prison for her own troublesome, unwanted self.
* * *
Bridie was summoned to the solicitor’s office for the reading of the will, alone; she emerged grim-faced. As expected, she was sole guardian. Declan had long since lost touch with his family due to irreconcilable differences. She had called them about his death and even delayed the funeral by two days in the hope that they’d soften, but it seems they couldn’t forgive him for marrying the daughter of an industrial schoolgirl. Maeve was better off without the cold heartless bastards, in Bridie’s opinion.
The guardianship wasn’t the cause of her concern. It was the secret she was bidden to carry for the next nine years, and the fallout that she already knew would surely follow. She didn’t agree with the conditions, but her job was simply to obey instructions. No matter how big the burden, she would shoulder it gratefully, her last act of love for her now lifeless daughter. And even when the need for secrecy was over, Bridie vowed she would be the one to take the blame. Why taint the precious memory of the dead?
Maeve’s heart was definitely not in it as she returned to the outposts of Clifden. Even after nine years of living there, she still didn’t consider it home. Home was still the much more lively and cosmopolitan Galway city where she had grown up with her parents. She pondered on how different this day would have been if her mother and father were still alive. She’d probably be on a whistle stop visit before packing to go off to America on a working holiday along with many of her friends. She gave in to her self-pity on the train journey from Dublin to Galway, thinking just how cruel life was, forcing her back to a miserable existence, chamber-maiding and waitressing in her grandmother’s hotel with nothing better on the horizon. She lamented the recession-struck economy that meant there was not much call for history and archaeology degrees. In spite of applying for everything even vaguely related to it, Maeve had failed to land herself ‘a proper job’ as she thought of it. Of course the aftereffects of the late night, end-of-term partying wasn’t helping her mood.
Finally her mood was lifted when she disembarked and was met by her friend Sean, who brought a smile to her face and caught her up with the local news in his good-humoured easy way for the remainder of the journey. He was still in his Garda uniform and his youthful, roguish charm belied his position of authority as a member of the police force. They whizzed past stone walls, rolling hills, beaches with breath-taking views, and small sleepy villages, yet Maeve was oblivious to the beauty of it all as she really didn’t want to be there. The only thing she was aware of was the smell of the sea and the wild hedgerow, so much more fragrant than the city stench in this unusually hot May.
“Are you coming in for a pint?” Maeve asked as they drove through the wrought-iron gates of the hotel gardens. The usual sense of incarceration descended on her immediately as the high walls surrounded her as if sucking her in. The pretty floral gardens, gazebo, and water fountain, a cheerful, welcoming sight for most visitors, were not achieving their goal with her.
“No. I’ll catch you later. I’m still on duty, and if I know Bridie, she’ll have a list of chores as long as your arm and she’ll be tsk tsking as long as I’m there keeping you from them. Besides it’s dinnertime; she probably needs you in the dining room.”
“Did you have to remind me?” Maeve replied with a groan. “Thanks for picking me up, Sean, you’re an angel, as ever,” she continued a little more chirpily, grateful for the ride home and his good spirits.
Without even seeking out her grandmother, Maeve donned the hotel uniform of a simple black skirt and white shirt, and made her way straight to the dining room for waitressing duty. Mealtime was unusually quiet, much to her relief. There were only a couple of men sitting at one table and Maeve was surprised to see her grandmother sitting with them, absorbed in conversation.
She observed the little group from a distance for a minute or two. The two gentlemen looked like father and son, one grey-haired and distinguished looking with a pleasant lined face showing character and a life fully lived. She judged him to be around her grandmother’s age. The younger man had a more serious face; his sandy sun-bleached hair made it difficult to age him, but his face had a rugged, slightly weathered look, although it was wrinkle free. And he was big; even sitting he was a full head clear of the other man and Bridie looked like a midget beside him. Maeve tried to suppress a smile at the funny-looking picture they made.
Americans, I’ll bet, she thought as she entered the room, only to have her hunch confirmed on hearing their accents. Bridie didn’t often make free with the guests, preferring to keep a professional distance, so Maeve was pretty stunned to hear what she was saying to the younger man.
“I was here too for a while. My mother died, leaving me and my brother, and my father couldn’t get work so he had to go to England. He came back for us years later, and gave us the money to start afresh in America. I got a wicked pleasure when we got this place off the nuns for a song back in the eighties. I took it as payback. I do remember your grandmother, not from here, but I knew her later. She helped people like us; got us jobs in service. She was a real lady. Ah, Maeve, you’re home,” she broke off abruptly on seeing her granddaughter finally. Maeve was aware of her grandmother’s early history, but she had rarely heard her talk about her years in the industrial school. Bridie accepted her granddaughter’s perfunctory kiss on the cheek without acknowledging it.
“This is Lawrence Williamson and his son, also Lawrence, from Texas. They’ve been here for a few days and have been looking forward to meeting you so they could get some of the history of this place. I told them it was your department, seeing as you’ve read so much about it. I only know it from the inside.”
“Mr Williamson, Mr Williamson,” she said, shaking hands first with the older gentleman. “It must have been difficult for your family to distinguish who was whom,” Maeve jabbered, trying to penetrate the cool demeanour of the younger Mr Williamson, who was now eying her critically.
“Please call me Lawrence, and not at all, I’m the third generation of Lawrence Williamson, and my son here is the fourth,” the elder gentleman answered. “It’s a sort of family tradition, to keep the name alive. My wife called me Lawrence and my son Larry, so we always knew which of us she was scolding.”
The younger Mister Williamson remained silent as Maeve offered him her hand, neither calling her by her name nor inviting Maeve to call him Larry. A cool customer, she surmised as Lawrence spoke again, breaking the impasse. She saw him shoot a disapproving look at his son.
“Your grandma tells me you’re the one to talk to about my mom; she was an inmate in the laundry, an unmarried mother, when my daddy saw her at Mass one Sunday. He took a shine to her and posed as a relative to get her out. He told us he had to bribe a few of the policemen and pay some money to the priest too.”
“Oh, wow, not many escaped like that. Once you were in, it was almost impossible to leave; usually a parent had to sign you out. Mostly if you had a baby out of wedlock, you were doomed to a life in the laundries, because your parents never came back to claim you,” Maeve explained. “Did she ever find out what happened to her baby? What was your mam’s maiden name, by the way?”
“Margaret O’Flaherty, and no, ma’am, she never did; so many records seem to have been lost. She died sadly not knowing. All we know is that the father was a schoolmaster who took advantage of her youth and left her to pay the price, but she never did tell her family, as he was well respected and she was afraid nobody would believe her, a fourteen-year-old girl. A sad tale all round.”
“That’s awful, but a common story, I’m afraid. I should have a few hours tomorrow where we can go through all the information I’ve pulled together. I’d really like to turn the old laundry into a museum, a sort of memorial to all the girls who went through its doors, for those who survived and all those who weren’t so lucky. Have you seen the graveyard attached to the church? All the paupers’ graves? They belong to those who died when still inmates; some of them were so young. This place was quite unusual in that it was both a laundry and an industrial school; usually they were only one or the other.”
Lawrence Williamson the Fourth simply listened, seemingly taking it all in. His head nodded in agreement at times; mostly he seemed to be pensive or brooding. Once in a while he asked questions and it became apparent to Maeve that he had done quite a lot of research on the Magdalene Laundries himself and had a lot of admiration for his grandmother and what she had endured.
“They were very cruel times in Ireland. You have to remember most people here never made it past a primary school education, even up to the mid-sixties, and were very poor. Keeping them uneducated meant they were easily led by those in power, the educated classes,” Maeve told him. “It’s not that her family were bad, just ignorant and therefore ashamed.”
“You’re just like she was, too quick to forget the hurt,” Larry said directly to Maeve.
“If you don’t mind me saying, son, you’re wrong,” Bridie interrupted. “We never forget, but we try to move on. No point on dwelling on what we can’t change. Your granny knew that, and she taught so many of us to do the same, God bless her. Maeve knows the cost of our history; her father’s parents never met her because of me, but sometimes we have to learn to let go. “
“You have family you never met? Shame on them,” Larry said, his face flushed.
“It’s ok; if Dad could live without them, so can I.”
“I may be interested in partially funding the museum, as a memorial to my grandma,” he ventured. Maeve could see the offer was obviously in response to the tenuous link he had with her and Bridie through the industrial school, and he also saw this as an opportunity to show the world his admiration for his grandmother.
“Ach, save your money, son,” Bridie interrupted. “The banks are threatening to close us down as we’ve had a few bad years of nothing but rain. And rain means no tourists; no tourists is no money to us. We might not even be here after this season is over. And a museum like that just wouldn’t fund itself.”
Maeve flinched; she had no idea times were so tough. She had known Bridie had borrowed to extend the hotel back in the good times, but she hadn’t suspected they were about to lose everything.
“Is it cash flow or a fundamental problem? Would you mind me looking at the books? Maybe the museum and the hotel combined could bring more visitors,” Larry said.
“Sure I know nothing about high finance, lad. All I know is that I borrowed to refurbish the hotel, and to pay for Maeve to go to college. Then the country went to the dogs and the I.M.F. came in telling us all what was what. Now I can’t meet my monthly repayments, so the bank is demanding it all back at once and I just don’t know what to do.” Bridie was wringing her hands as she spoke. Maeve knew she was annoyed and worried from her demeanour; she’d been looking at Bridie long enough to read her signals.
Although shocked and scared at what was unfolding, Maeve was livid to hear the details being told to a stranger before she herself heard them, especially insofar as they related to her college fees. She excused herself and left the table, barely containing her anger, just as she heard Mr Williamson ask for more details of the financial problems.
“Sean, it’s Maeve,” she said into her mobile phone. “Can you pick me up? I need to get outa here before I choke someone.”
“Sure, what’s up?” Sean asked.
“I’ll tell you when I see you, but I need to get away and could use a good stiff drink.”
“Be there in ten, keep cool. See ya.”
“Thanks,” Maeve said, hanging up. Her grandmother came in, acting defensive.
“Young Larry is willing to consider investing in the hotel, if he thinks it can be saved; all mightn’t be lost yet, Maeve,” Bridie told her.
“Feck Larry, son, Mister Williamson or whatever the hell you want to call him. You should have told me what was going on before you went crying to a stranger. I had a right to know,” Maeve replied crossly.
She was stewing by the time Sean got there. Maeve hit the bar with a vengeance. She was so mad she didn’t want to think about responsibility. Sean tried to calm her down, but she was having none of it, and spent the night ranting about the injustice of life.
“You know she’s not really that bad,” Sean said as Maeve was lacing into him about Bridie. “…just an older generation.”
“She’s a manipulative old goat; she could have told me about the problems any time, but she just happened to choose to do it when there are wealthy guests. Coincidence? I think not. I didn’t have to go to college, or I could have worked a part-time job to pay my living expenses, but whenever I suggested that, she told me just to concentrate on my studies. Then she lands this bombshell. She never told me she was borrowing for it. She said my parents had taken care of it.”
“Education is important to that generation; they didn’t get the chance of it. Come on, Maeve, let it go. In her own way she probably thought she was protecting you,” he reasoned.
“Protecting me my arse, she’s playing games, wait ‘til you see,” Maeve slurred.
“I think you’d better stay at mine tonight, you’re in no fit state to see her and you’ll only end up fighting again,” Sean said, looking pointedly at his watch. She reluctantly agreed to leave with him.
* * *
By the time she had slept off her alcoholic haze, it was long past breakfast and Maeve had missed her morning duties. Bridie and Mr Williamson the Fourth, as she now had him dubbed, were in the office looking over sets of accounts when she arrived. Judging by the look on Bridie’s face, she was in a lot of trouble. It was equally obvious to Maeve that Bridie had been giving vent to her anger with Larry, as he seemed to be just as mad. This added to Maeve’s annoyance, as really it was none of his damn business; he was still just an ordinary paying guest. There was no money on the table yet. A catfight erupted between the two women; Larry looked on in stony silence for a few minutes before calling a halt.
“Maeve, your grandma was right earlier when she said you needed to grow up. You’re behaving like a naughty toddler who threw her own teddy bear out of the pushchair. Mrs McNamara, I know I told you this morning that I thought I could turn this place around, but that was before I realised how volatile and unreliable the management was. You both need to learn to work together if you want to fix this, but I’m out.” With that he left the room.
“You’re a spoiled little madam. I’m glad your parents aren’t here to see how selfish you’ve become, miss-madam,” Bridie added her two cents’ worth before leaving Maeve to stew in her own anger.
Management my arse, thought Maeve, remembering Larry’s comment, more like general dogsbody and gofer. Granny calls the shots and I’m supposed to unquestioningly do as I’m told. And it’s always my fault; she never sees my side.
After having shed tears of bitter frustration, Maeve cooled off and talked herself into getting up from the desk. She couldn’t quite believe that she was in this position. Although she still felt quite justified in her anger, she knew if she didn’t face up to the consequences of her actions, the business would be closed down. Her only option was to lay herself at Mr Lawrence Williamson the Fourth’s mercy and beg his forgiveness. Damn him, and damn Granny. What she really wanted to do was to say to hell with it all and look for work in London or New York, but this mess was of her making and she knew she’d have to fix it; she owed it to Bridie.
Working in a small hotel in Connemara wasn’t exactly the life plan she had mapped out for herself. She had pictured herself as assistant curator in one of the national museums, putting her love of history to work. Now at best, she might get to tell some of the tourists a bit about Connemara of old. The only thing the hotel had going for it, in Maeve’s opinion, was the industrial school and laundry. There were old dormitories, classrooms, and laundry rooms in an ugly concrete annexe that hadn’t been converted for use in the hotel; they even had mangles and early washing machines. She had hoped she could use some of her spare time making that her project. But now that might not even be an option, not if the bank was threatening to foreclose the loan.
Bracing herself, she went and knocked on Larry’s bedroom door. She caught her breath as the door opened, revealing his six foot three, muscular frame. His sun-kissed hair was still wet from his after-run shower, and his tanned face had the rosy glow of exercise, but at least he was dressed, she noticed gratefully.
“Maeve, what can I do for you?” Larry asked, obviously surprised at her presence.
“Um, I w-wonder if we might have a word about the funding, or is your mind made up? I’m really s-sorry for letting you down,” she stammered.
“Let’s take a walk in the garden. I don’t feel comfortable meeting with you alone in my bedroom.” Larry put his hand on her back, guiding her down the corridor towards the front door. She felt completely towered by this big strong Texan with his stern face and piercing blue eyes. He had a solemn, determined look on his face that exacerbated her nerves.
“Ok, Maeve, so talk. Why do you think I would want to invest my grandfather’s hard-earned money in a business when the person who is supposed to be running it stays out all night drinking and cavorting with her boyfriend, and then is not available to provide breakfast? No breakfast in a hotel is pretty serious, is it not?”
Maeve hung her head in shame, her long blue-black curls hiding her blushing face. At five foot seven she was pretty tall, but he made her feel like a midget. She hadn’t felt so chastised since her father had been alive. The worst thing was she knew he was right.
“There’s nobody says you can’t have a night off, but you can’t just decide not turn up when you’re scheduled to be working. What if your grandma hadn’t been here; what would have happened with your guests? It’s no way to manage a business. How can I ever trust you?”
“It won’t happen again. I give you my word, Mr Williamson. I didn’t even know until yesterday what a financial mess we were in—it was a knee-jerk reaction and I’m sorry. I’m asking if there is any way you would reconsider your position; if not for me, then for my grandmother. Maybe even if she hires alternative staff and lets me go. I can always get a job in England or America.”
Maeve was aware that she was begging and it mortified her, but it would break her grandmother’s heart to lose the hotel. She had been running it for years, since long before Maeve’s mum and dad had passed away. And it didn’t help her conscience to know that part of the reason for the loan now being called in was to fund Maeve’s education, as well as upgrade the premises. The burden of guilt would just be too much. Maeve already felt she carried enough guilt in her life to make her determined not to add to the mountain.
“Do you think any American employer would tolerate you not showing up for work, young lady? I can assure you they most certainly would not.” Maeve could see he was resolute not to make this easy for her. They had walked around the walled gardens several times by now and found themselves at the door to the concrete annexe.
“Let me at least show you what I wanted to do with the museum,” Maeve suggested, hoping maybe she might manage to wrench at his heartstrings a little. She led him through the laundry rooms, dating the various artefacts, then to the one remaining dormitory, and finally the small schoolroom. In reality, industrial schools were more for labour than classroom skills.
As the door swung shut, Maeve noticed Larry’s eye was attracted by the old strap, used for disciplining the inmates, slapping against the door where it was hanging. It was the first time she had ever regretted leaving it there; he seemed dumbstruck as it swung back and forth. Maeve hadn’t really considered what it might be like for a tourist to see it there; most of the Irish had long since learned to accept the horror of the brutality that once prevailed in these institutions, and for Maeve, it served as a reminder never to give a state too much power. She tried to put herself in Larry’s shoes.
“Like I said last night, they were cruel times in Ireland,” she offered sympathetically. Sadly for her though, she had misinterpreted his musings and would have been much better keeping her mouth shut.
“What? Pardon me, I was miles away,” he apologised as she interrupted his thoughts. He became flustered and quite red in the face.
“Oh, nothing, I was just reflecting on the horror of being an inmate here, or at any of the institutions. Corporal punishment was the norm and it was incredibly brutal. Many were severely beaten up.”
“Yes, I heard you say that last night, and I know your grandma was in one, but even so, she suggested that I should, hmm, what were her exact words, give you a good leathering to teach you some manners. Now that I can see what a leathering means, I’m pretty shocked she would suggest such a thing.”
“The old witch said that? How dare she?” Maeve spat. She felt totally outraged at her grandmother. Maeve’s parents had never raised a finger to her and corporal punishment was long since outlawed in schools, and rightly so; it was barbaric behaviour as far as she was concerned. “What bloody century is she living in, auld dragon? You’d think her time in the institutions should make her see that it’s no solution. The bitch,” she continued, ranting angrily.
“It would seem that she may have a point; how can you show such little respect for someone who has given you so much? Her later years should have been easy, but she went into debt to put you through school. She may lose everything and you repay her by letting her down. Just now, it’s very tempting, young lady,” Larry replied icily.
“You don’t know my life, you have no right to judge it,” Maeve snapped. “Who the fuck do you think you are?” She saw him flinch at the coarse expression, but she didn’t care; he’d really pissed her off.
“I’m the person who could have saved you and your grandmother from financial ruin, but right this minute I’m very glad I didn’t. Frankly, I don’t think anyone could fix your attitude, it’s all about you in your little head.”
Larry had just gone way too far for Maeve to tolerate. She lashed out and smacked him across his face, which was now bright red, a combination of anger and the handprint she had just left behind. Without as much as a word, he picked her up and carried her across to one of the old wooden desks, sat on it, and upended her across his lap. The light leggings she wore offered no protection as he started using his big hand as a paddle on her bottom.
“Don’t [smack] you [smack] ever [smack] raise [smack] your [smack] hand [smack] to me [smack] young lady [smack]!”
Maeve was too shell-shocked to do anything other than yell. She kicked her legs furiously, but he simply pinned them between his so she was lying across one knee and held down by the other. She thumped at his muscular thighs with her fists, but she may as well have been a fly landing on his strong legs. She became aware that he was pulling down her leggings. The humiliation would have been totally unbearable except she didn’t have time to deal with it at that precise moment. The urgency to make the thrashing stop was her most pressing need.
“Let me go, you bastard,” she shouted. “I’ll see you locked up for this.”
“Let me remind you who cast the first stone,” he replied, still thwacking down on her behind. “I will have to publicly bear the humiliation of your temper; at least your marks will be hidden.”
“Ok, I’m sorry, please stop. Please.” By now her shouts of anger had changed to cries of pain and despair.
But it didn’t stop, not until she desisted fighting and lay prostrate across his knee, simply accepting her fate with tears streaming down her cheeks. Once she ceased struggling, he stopped spanking, his anger apparently burned out.