Book Extracts

Book Extracts

Below are some extracts of my current work.

To find out more, please visit me at: www.ianashley.co.uk



Dealing with Social Services

Bell, Book & HandbagPosted by Ian Ashley Thu, August 28, 2014 06:56PM

Bell Book & Handbag Part VII

Dealing with Social Services

…‘And who are you?’ she barked at the thin young woman who had slipped quietly into the cubicle behind her.

Apparently this was Monica and Monica had been assigned as my social worker.

I felt a surge of panic and said ‘David Cameron’, but nobody was listening to me. And why would they? After all I was only the person who was being forced into the welfare system against my will. I was old, toothless and in a paper nightdress. What rights did I have?

Beattie heard the words ‘social worker’ and compressed her lips into an expression that looked anything but welcoming.

‘And what do you normally do when you’re not assigned Monica? Are you some kind of YTS?

At this point I started to protest but was firmly rebuffed by Beattie who told me to keep my mouth shut and leave the talking to her or I’d end up in a home singing Tipperary three times a week and twice at weekends.

Monica braced herself against her clipboard and prepared to stand her ground. Unfortunately my best friend was not the kind of woman she had come across in any of her training modules. She wasn’t sure if she needed to practise intervention or anger management. Whilst Monica dithered Beattie went for it. You could tell she was in no mood to be wrong footed by a woman with plaits.

‘Mrs Truscott is not homeless, and despite the wig she is not mental or a sex worker and as far as I know my friend is still in full control of her own water works and bowel movements. And neither is she a single parent family…’

My social worker let out something akin to a whimper of pain and fled, presumably to apply for the softer option of teaching French to inner city teenagers with a crack cocaine dependency. I let out a similar sound only mine was real pain. Not so much pain from my injury but more from the sound of Beattie’s voice banging against my own troubled thoughts.

‘I’ll get a nurse,’ Beattie said and charged off down the ward demanding injections, bed pans and a crash team. Still at least she was gone.

Now whatever anybody said, including Beattie, I knew I was pushed, and more to the point I was knocked off my feet by a woman we had both seen committed to the ground less than ten days earlier. But then why hadn’t Beattie seen her? Or had she? Knowing her views on matters psychic if the angel Gabrielle had appeared to a Virgin Beattie there would have been no baby Jesus. Still it had to be said that if Jean Shanks was going to materialise to anybody it wouldn’t be me. For one thing we couldn’t stand each other. And for another I wasn’t the one who had said all those unkind things about her funeral tea.

So why was she picking on me: and why now? We had a coach tour of the Fen Country booked at the end of the month. I didn’t have time for all this. Then again Beattie had seen the trip advertised in the same magazine that sold Velcro fastening shoes so enough said.

Beattie could say what she liked but I knew a ghost when I saw one. I may well have been found guilty of fraudulent clairvoyance but once I did actually possess the gift. Sadly in my case it turned out to be more of a curse but that’s another story. Still at one time I had been very good even if I say so myself. It was only when I got a bit carried away that I came unstuck. And who knew but if it hadn’t been for that undercover policewoman it might well have been me on that poster and not Doris Morris; only thinner of course.

I was still pondering my unwilling return to the world of the spirits when Beattie arrived with a nurse and enough pain relief to stun an elephant.

‘I suppose you do have qualifications wherever it is you come from?’ she asked the tiny oriental woman who was busy trying to find a vein in my arm.

‘Well I hope you know what you’re doing’ she went on before mouthing her apology to me that this was the only nurse she could find. ‘All the real ones seem to have gone home; or they’re drunk’.

So whichever way you told it I was pushed flat on my face by a ghost that Beattie may or may not have seen; Jean Shanks was back in the material world and I was being repeatedly jabbed in the arm by a Phillipino nurse who was trying her best to fend off blows from Beattie’s handbag at the same time.

...it was good to lose consciousness especially when bells are ringing and people are calling for security. With most people you could feign deafness or ignorance. With Beattie you had to go the whole hog and black out...





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Maureen gets an unwelcome visitor on the ward

Bell, Book & HandbagPosted by Ian Ashley Wed, August 27, 2014 07:02PM

Bell Book & Handbag Part VI

An unwelcome visitor on the ward

…So there I was, wigless, toothless and about to be sucked into care in the community against my will. To be honest wearing a paper night dress doesn’t do much for your self esteem either. To say I was at my lowest ebb would have been an understatement and I had a terrible feeling that things could only get worse.

And as soon as I heard those footsteps I knew there was trouble brewing. Nobody else could make that amount of noise on a wooden floor, not even a Bogdan.

‘There you are!’

The curtains parted to reveal Beattie as red as a beetroot and panting for all she was worth. Even in rubber soles she is not capable of launching a surprise attack.

‘That stupid woman on the desk, I think she’s a Sullivan by her second marriage which explains a lot, only sent me all the way over to male urology. I don’t think so, I said, but she was would have it that she was right. Although why she thought you’d be in a ward full of old men with catheters I really don’t know. I tell you Maureen if there is a part of the body that can be drained, stitched back or cauterized I’ve been there.’

She made an ill-tempered flourish with the headscarf she was mopping her face with. I noticed it was one of her best ones too; the one with the map of the Isle of Wight on it. She’d bought me one but I honestly thought it was a tea towel.

‘I thought for one awful moment they’d sent you to the Princess Diana. Dropping like flies they are over there, not to mention loosing limbs left right and centre,’ she puffed before adding the comforting afterthought that at least here I could die of my own ill-health and not from some second hand infection.

‘And’ she said looking round with uncharacteristic caution, ‘did you know this place is crawling with Orientals? I had to ask three of them the way before I found one that could do more than smile. You want to be very careful Maureen.’

‘Now you can’t say that Beattie’ I said. Love her dearly as I might she could be a bit too BNP for my liking. In her black and white world everything should have been white. Come to think of it I wouldn’t have been surprised if it wasn’t her who spread the rumour that Mr Patel scratched the sell by dates off things in the first place.

Beattie snapped back that she could and she would. She’d watched ‘Tenko’. She knew!

‘When I think of poor Alec Guinness,’ she huffed, ‘and what he went through building that bridge....’ she snatched the curtains closed behind her.

‘Anyway I nipped back to your house and brought you these!’ She whispered and pointed to a carrier bag as if she was supplying me with Class A drugs.

I was expecting the bunch of grapes but I was not prepared when she produced what, given the location and the circumstance, could well have been a human scalp and part of a jaw. As it was it was only a wig and my spare top set.

‘I know it’s Liza Minnelli but I’m sorry to say some little brat called Tyrone snatched up Shirley Bassey before I had a chance to clip him round the ear. And would he give her back? No he would not. I almost had to break his fingers. And his mother was no help. You know the sort I mean Maureen; about twelve in a pink tracksuit and with ‘co-habitee’ written all over her. Still that’s modern life for you although why wearing one of those scrunchy things means you have to lose your moral standards I know. They must be the hula hoop of the new millennium I suppose. Still we are where we are and if people will insist on voting the wrong way what can the rest of us expect?’

Before I had a chance to say anything she rammed the wig on my head oblivious to the dressing Staff Nurse Carole had stuck over a very nasty head wound. Thankfully the painkillers were so strong that I merely winced.

‘Umm. She didn’t look like that in Cabaret.’

I reached up through a haze of pain in my shoulder and tugged the wig round the right way.

‘I think you were done you know. She definitely didn’t look like that. A slut yes, demented no. Mind you I never saw all of it; mucky and far too much gratuitous thigh for my liking.’

I reached up and gave the wig another tug. Then I remembered the cut over my right eye and settled for comfort and something more Rolling Stone than Weimar Republic. Beattie merely listed heavily to one side as if she had suddenly suffered a shift of cargo below the waterline. Her lips pursed and I could tell she still wasn’t convinced that anybody could have won an Oscar with that hairstyle.

‘I expect she was on drugs anyway’.

According to Beattie most people under the age of forty were. For those that weren’t it was only a matter of time. Her whole life appeared to be spent shoring up her defences against a rising tide of drugs and delinquency. That probably explained her corsets. They were a sort of Maginot Line with eyelets.

‘I have to say Maureen I don’t know what you thought you were playing at!’ She wiped a finger along the window sill and grimaced at the dust. ‘Fancy making an exhibition of yourself like that, and in a public place?’

‘I was pushed’, I said.

‘You fell flat on your own face. I was there remember?’

‘But I was!’ I protested. I thought mentioning that the police would be calling to take a statement might wipe the smug expression off her face. Instead she looked like somebody had plugged her whalebones into the mains.

‘Are you mad Maureen Truscott? They’ll take one look at you in that wig and have you put in a home! Which reminds me, did anybody ask you who the Prime Minister is?’

I nodded. I didn’t say that I’d got it wrong. Well there was no point provoking her further when she was in one of her moods.

She said that she hoped for my sake I hadn’t said Gordon Brown and reminded me of what happened to Polly when she’s said Margaret Thatcher.

‘Six weeks she was in that place!’

‘Three weeks’, I said.

‘I happen to know different Maureen, remember my Arthur’s niece works at the Council Offices and as a government employee she would hardly lie about such things would she? All of which brings me back to the police and your misguided attempt to make a drama out of this little incident. If you ask me (which I hadn’t) you’ve only yourself to blame. I mean fancy wearing those stupid shoes at your age. Well it’s to be hoped you’ve learned your lesson Maureen. Honestly falling about like that is it any wonder people think you’ve got a drink problem?’

I sighed. That was the first I’d heard about that one. Normally it was just wigs and prostitution. The trouble with Beattie was that because you could never tell when she was being deliberately cruel or unintentionally hurtful, you never knew when to bite back or when to let it all go over your head. And right now my head hurt so I ducked that one without even a second thought.

She said that if I took her advice I’d forget the whole thing. After all what would people think if they read that sort of thing in the local paper?

‘I’ll tell you what they’d think’ she continued before I had a chance to interrupt her. ‘They would think that our dear little town was a haven for thugs and vandals and before you know where you are our houses would be worth next to nothing.

‘But I was pushed I tell you,’ I said. ‘I felt somebody shove me in the back just before I fell over.’

I could feel myself beginning to come over slightly peculiar and prayed for death before I had to listen to Beattie again. But no such luck. When she was in this mood she was like one of those giant super tankers, you could turn the engines off but it took a bloody long way before it stopped.

‘Tripped over your own silly shoes you mean,’ she snapped. ‘I was right next to you remember? I saw everything.’

Glossing over the fact that she had been hit by an invisible stone herself, she reeled off a sequence of events that saw her leaping into a taxi and, being the good friend and neighbour that she was, going back to my place, braving my mucky kitchen, grabbing Liza Minnelli and helping herself to the travel tokens I kept in a teapot on the mantelpiece to pay for the round trip.

‘And this is how you repay me, threatening to slice half off the value of my home overnight!’

I had no way of knowing how much of this was fact and how much was Beattie. Mind you the bit about her raiding my secret store of rainy day bus tokens sounded very much like her. I was about to take my life in my hands and ask if she’d seen anybody following us on the promenade, well not just anybody, more specifically Jean Shanks when the curtains twitched and Beattie spun round like a fornicator caught in the act.

‘And who are you?’ she barked at the thin young woman who had slipped quietly into the cubicle behind her.

Apparently this was Monica and Monica had been assigned as my social worker….

© Ian Ashley 2014

If you wish to receive notifications of further postings about the lives of the folk in Biddermouth on Sea either click the RSS icon on this page or e-mail me at ian@ianashley.co.uk and I’ll add your name to the subscriber list – it’s free, you can leave comments and you have the right cancel at any time.

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There's something strange about Bogdan

Bell, Book & HandbagPosted by Ian Ashley Tue, August 26, 2014 07:20PM

Bell Book & Handbag Part V

There is something strange about Bogdan

…There is nothing like being abandoned in an empty ward without your wig and your top set of teeth for making you feel old and unwanted. The fact that I was dying for a wee didn’t help either.

‘Worse things happen at sea,’ I told myself.

We used to say that a lot in prison. Usually when somebody’s parole was turned down or they got a letter saying their husband was leaving them or their boyfriend had got another girl into trouble and was having to get married. But to be honest what is the worst thing that can happen at sea? Yes. You drown. And sometimes when the doors were locked at night and the lights were turned out that was exactly what it felt like.

One of the pills they’d given me must have made me nod off because the next thing I knew there was this great big thing looming over me like...like a great big looming thing. He smiled and apart from the gold teeth he looked quite friendly. Still there was something in his eyes that made me feel sorry for the lad. He looked so sad, displaced, which I suppose he was really, being called Bogdan.

‘I frighten you, sorry’ he said. ‘We go to ward.’

‘Toward what’ I said, and for a nasty moment I wondered if he wasn’t one of those maniacs who make a habit of working in hospitals to help old people on their way Toward The Light. Not doctors I mean, although Beattie just happens to know such stories. Sadly these only serve to bolster her rather right wing views on foreigners. For some reason she has a real phobia about doctors from Sierra Leone. I doubt she even knows where it is, but whatever the reason she once contemplated amputating her own septic finger when Dr Ndolo was the locum at the surgery.

Bogdan thought I’d made a joke and laughed. I could see that with decent dentistry he could be a bit of a heart throb. But then those Eastern Europeans are like that. They are either drop dead gorgeous or they look like hobbits. There is no middle ground. Fortunately my Bogdan was a bit of a dish despite the teeth and if I’d been twenty years younger I wouldn’t have minded being left in a goods lift with him at all. Well let’s make it thirty years then, maybe even forty.

I also had the feeling that he wasn’t really the sort to go leaving people on trolleys in goods lifts for no good reason. Call it a sixth sense but I felt sure he was not as black as he was painted. I reckoned it had more to do with him not being British than anything else. There is a lot of prejudice against foreigners but at the end of the day they are only trying to make a living like the rest of us.

Of course if you listened to Beattie they were milking the social security system left and right, taking jobs from British people and snatching the daily bread from out of our very mouths. Added to that there was the TB and the host of other communicable diseases that she claimed they brought into the country because of their lack of personal hygiene and spitting. She didn’t exactly go as far as saying that they eat babies but I knew the thought was there. Anybody wondering how one small man with a dodgy moustache could wind up killing six million Jews needed to look no further than the likes of Beattie Hathaway.

She was exactly the same when Mr Patel was mugged for his takings. Beattie claimed it served him right for scratching the sell-by dates off his yoghurts. She soon changed her tune when he shut his shop for two weeks whilst his brother installed attack alarms and metal grills on the windows. Walking those four extra streets to get her newspapers not only gave her corns but a totally different outlook on the Asian community I can tell you.

What is sad is that you only had to listen to her to know that she had led such a very small life. It could not have been easy living with all those neck-less relatives. Buying Christmas presents must have been a nightmare. You couldn’t have got a scarf or a tie on any of them. Not that she ever talked much about her family except to harp on about how wonderful they all were, hinting now and then that when she ceased to be a Freemantle she had married beneath herself, but if the photographs were anything to go by you got the impression that they were not what you could call a barrel of laughs.

For a start there’s not one of them with a smile in any of her wedding photos. I mean my lot may have been a bit rough but there was always something going on somewhere causing the branches of the family tree to tremble. Sometimes being a Truscott could be very exciting. If you added in the Openshaw and the Tappley cousins the effect was mind blowing. When I was growing up the local newspapers court report was a veritable who’s who of my genetic inheritance. Small wonder I ended up where I did then?

Anyway not for Beattie the thrill of a life on the waltzers that’s for sure. And I don’t suppose she’d ever made love under Blackpool pier either. What I am saying is that a narrow mind in the wrong hands is a very dangerous thing. Like a hand grenade with no pin.

Despite my forebodings the St Vitus ward looked a nice enough place. At least it wasn’t mixed and Bogdan soon had me safely installed in nice clean bed which considering it had only just been vacated by the recently deceased was reassuringly cold.

The sound of the safety bars being locked firmly into place had a familiar ring of doom about it and my heart sank.

‘See you alligator later!’ he said as he bowed and kissed my hand.

So there I was, wigless, toothless and about to be sucked into care in the community against my will. To be honest wearing a paper night dress doesn’t do much for your self esteem either. To say I was at my lowest ebb would have been an understatement and I had a terrible feeling that things could only get worse.

© Ian Ashley 2014

If you wish to receive notifications of further postings about the lives of the folk in Biddermouth on Sea either click the RSS icon on this page or e-mail me at ian@ianashley.co.uk and I’ll add your name to the subscriber list – it’s free, you can leave comments and you have the right cancel at any time.

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Maureen Experiences the National Health Service

Bell, Book & HandbagPosted by Ian Ashley Mon, August 25, 2014 06:44PM

Bell, Book & Handbag Part IV

Maureen experiences the National Health Service

Placed in alphabetical order the things Beattie hates most would run to several volumes rather like the Encyclopaedia Britannica. However under ‘B’ you would find ‘Being shown up’ and under ‘M’ you would find ‘Making an exhibition of yourself’. Under ‘R’ would be ‘Ruining a perfectly good day out’. Being taken to hospital having rendered myself unconscious in a public place meant I had definitely transgressed all of those and probably a few others along the way.

I have to admit coming round with Beattie threatening to topple over on top of me in the confined space of a speeding ambulance was enough to make anybody suffer a relapse. Somewhere she must have read, heard, or ‘just happened to know ‘that the best way to keep people conscious was to keep talking to them. I’ve heard that too, but I thought the idea was to ask them questions to keep them thinking. Instead she just rattled on with no need for me to even draw breath. She was doing enough of that for both of us. Now normally when she starts I switch off but I figured that this time round it was safer to stay awake. The first hint of a dropped eyelid and she’d be breaking all my ribs in a mis-guided attempt at CPR.

‘Now pay attention Maureen, as long as you can remember your name, your address and the name of the Prime Minister they can’t touch your pension money! Now who are you?’

I think I said ‘Maureen Truscott, 53 Palmerston Terrace and David Cameron’, but even I couldn’t be sure with the oxygen mask clamped firmly across my face. I wasn’t even sure she was telling truth. All that sounded like another urban myth put about by social services to keep the elderly in a state of perpetual terror: like bogus gas men and the friend of a friend who ended up with their replacement knee joints fitted back to front. Still somewhere in a haze of incipient concussion and analgesics I could dimly recall the tale of Polly Albright. Legend has it that she said ‘Margaret Thatcher’ whilst she was still coming round from having her veins done. After that it took her son Nigel three weeks to get her out of Willow Bank Home for the Elderly, by which time she was word perfect in ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary ‘ and could never bring herself to sit on a plastic chair again. It is frightening how quickly people become institutionalised; especially when they like embroidery.

So I have to be extra careful. I haven’t got a Nigel to look out for me. I’ve got twin daughters, Cilla and Sandie, but I haven’t heard from them since they were six so I can’t see either of them lifting a finger to help their poor old mum. As they say in those detective movies, that Beattie also claims not to watch, that leaves me in a very vulnerable situation. So there we were in casualty. Me on a trolley, a nurse trying to do her best to get me booked in and Beattie doing her damndest to get my rings off before they were stolen.

‘I know they’re not worth anything’ she said getting in everybody’s way and almost dislocating my fingers, ‘but they are all you’ve got. Some of these porters can’t tell the difference between rubbish and the real thing. Evadne Collier lost her watch and her engagement ring. Both of them heirlooms and both of them turned up in that pawn shop near the cobblers.’

Eventually Beattie was asked, told, and then forcibly made to sit outside by two men in security uniforms. They must have taken her some way away because it all went terribly quiet allowing Staff Nurse Carol to get on with her forms.

It was just as well I said that I was sorry about my friend Beattie because in the confusion she had me down as Mrs Hathaway. Poor soul, it can’t have been easy trying to fill in the paperwork with Beattie pushing her out of the way all the time and demanding to know when she had last washed her hands.

Staff Nurse Carol said it was ok. Apparently since the cut backs they were used to psychiatric patients wondering about the place now that they all had their own keys. She said that they just didn’t have the time to keep locking them in and out. Apparently only last week one of them even turned up in the operating theatre dressed as a surgeon. When she laughed I got a strong whiff of cough mixture. When she called me ‘Beattie’ again I started to panic.

‘Maureen’ I said quickly. ‘My names Maureen Truscott and I live at 53 Palmerston Terrace and the Prime Ministers name is Gordon Brown. And I didn’t fall. I was pushed!’

‘Yes of course you were Beattie,’ she smiled, ‘Actually it’s David Cameron. Just make sure you get it right if Sister Mottram asks you. She’s very old school, but not in a nice way. She hates dust. Well if you ask me she doesn’t care much for patients either. But that’s between us. Better make sure we’ve got your brakes on hadn’t we? Don’t want you rolling away and getting lost! Now let’s see if we can find a porter with enough English to get you down to the ward in one piece. We don’t want you falling into Bogdan’s hands do we? Not after what happened last week when he left that patient in .....’.

She checked herself before adding that I was lucky the old lady in bed three had died that morning or I would have had to been sent to the Princess Di on the other side of town.

‘Oh’, I said, wondering if I should be marvelling at my good fortune.

Staff Nurse Carol paused and checked her watch.

‘Just between us they’ve got MRSA but keep that under your hat or this place will be swamped. God knows we’ve got enough on our hands with the cystitis epidemic let alone having to cope with a flesh eating virus.’

‘Now don’t you go worrying yourself Beattie’, she added. ‘She turned up in a goods lift of all places. Mind you if we hadn’t been stock taking and noticed we were one drip short she might still be there now!’

No doubt she was doing her best to establish what I believe is called ‘rapport’. But to be honest when she confided that last week alone they had lost 15 swabs and 2 pairs of forceps I think she could tell from the look on my face that all she was doing was putting the wind up me; that and the fact that I was now wearing a wristband with the wrong name on.

She gave the pillows an extra puff and straightened the covers. Apparently there was nothing to worry about. All I had to do was concentrate on getting better.

‘After all these things always turn up,’ she said brightly. ‘Usually at the sight of a post operative infection but we always get them back and after a quick boil they’re as good as new.’

She parked me in a side ward and I watched her disappear, the NHS in action, squeaking her way down the corridor. You could tell from the way she walked that she’s rather be wearing sling backs and working in a nice office. Yet despite the fact that she reeked of cough mixture and her foundation hardly bothered to conceal her acne she seemed a nice enough girl. I mean it can’t be easy dealing with death on a daily basis. Once upon a time nursing was a vocation. Now people were forced to do it because they couldn’t get jobs in travel agencies. No wonder she looked so demoralised.

And she wasn’t the only one. There is nothing like being abandoned in an empty ward without your wig and your top set of teeth for making you feel old and unwanted. The fact that I was dying for a wee didn’t help either.

© Ian Ashley 2014

If you wish to receive notifications of further postings about the lives of the folk in Biddermouth on Sea either click the RSS icon on this page or e-mail me at ian@ianashley.co.uk and I’ll add your name to the subscriber list – it’s free, you can leave comments and you have the right cancel at any time.



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The last thing you need is a celebrity medium with an ego problem

Bell, Book & HandbagPosted by Ian Ashley Mon, August 18, 2014 08:00PM

As usual, unless it’s raining or Beattie has forced her feet into a pair of court shoes, we took the route home along the sea front. I thought the walk would do me good and if you hit the promenade at the right angle Biddermouth On Sea is actually quite attractive. If you hit it at the wrong angle you’ll probably get mugged. Like all seaside towns and most of the inhabitants it has seen better days. But then that was what drew me there in the first place; that and my old friend Olive Mannering.

Olive had discovered that it was the sort of place where a woman with a secret could disappear. Granted I didn’t have as many secrets as her but I had enough. Then again perhaps Olive didn’t have as many as she thought either. Getting herself on the covers of most of the Sunday papers had seen to that. Not that they charged the archbishop in the end but the damage was done. I think he got off quite lightly considering she claimed he’d been wearing his mitre at the time. Still, after all those years of running and hiding, living in grubby little bedsits under assumed names and over fish and chip shops and Indian takeaways Biddermouth On Sea was a place we both felt that we could finally call home.

But for how much longer, I wondered? This business with Jean was stirring up old memories. The Dead and I had been uneasy bedfellows and I had no wish to be dragged back into that world.

‘It’s probably indigestion’ said Beattie.

‘What is?’ I asked wondering if I’d missed something important.

‘You’ she replied,’ you’ve been in a funny mood since you ate that soup. What was it? Carrot and lentil? Whatever next? If the Lord had meant us to eat pulses we’d have been born in Africa. What you need Maureen is a good dose of Andrews Liver salts when we get home. ‘

‘Probably,’ I said although by now my head was beginning to throb and I knew carrot and lentil soup was the least of my problems. A martyr to trapped wind and indigestion herself Beattie saw no reason why anybody else should be any different. The fact that all her problems stemmed from eating large quantities of chutney and wearing pre-decimalisation foundation garments never seemed to enter her head.

The further we walked along the seafront the colder the wind became although according to matron freezing to death would do me the power of good. I wasn’t so sure now. It didn’t feel right. And it had nothing to do with excess stomach acid. Out of the corner of my eye I saw something or somebody flit from the cover of one shelter to another. What we needed was to hide, and hide quickly.

I thought that feigning an interest in stately homes was a stroke of genius as I pushed Beattie into the local tourist information office. If it was Jean Shank’s ghost that was following us we should have been pretty safe in there. The words ‘Jean’ and ‘culture’ had never sat well together in my opinion. Politically she may have been as bigoted as Beattie but even I had to admit that my neighbour’s Maria Callas was one up on Jean’s collection of James Last albums. Beattie may have called them ‘arias’ and I may have called them ‘noise’ but there was a Maria Callas wig in my catalogue for £65.00 so she must have had something going for her despite sounding like a cat in mangle.

As it happened I should have just kept walking. Despite being numbed by the cold wind, my jaw almost hit the floor. There, right in front of us was an enormous poster advertising the forthcoming coming attraction at the Town Hall Theatre.

‘Doris Morris, Celebrity Medium and Clairvoyant to the Stars presents ‘The Above and Beyond’ tour.’

‘Beyond the Pale if you ask me’ snorted Beattie. ‘I mean how can she call herself a celebrity medium? For a start it’s all hogwash. As I always say ‘once you’re gone you are gone.’ Full stop. End of story. But I mean to say Maureen one interview with Lorraine Kelly and a picture with a weather girl is not my idea of celebrity anything. And just look at the size of her. She makes Peggy look positively svelte!’

Whilst it’s true that Doris Morris was what my ex-husband Archie would have called a ‘hefty piece’ it is also true to say that Beattie wasn’t exactly on the small side herself. Despite only being five foot two inches tall and rigorously corseted she still manages to make most reasonable sized rooms feel small. Beattie Hathaway was not so much a fine figure of a woman as a monolith in gabardine. In fact she was a standing stone dedicated to the art of the all in one foundation garment.

It was also true, as they say in America, that Doris Morris and I had history. At one point, after I’d left the fun fair, after Archie had been exposed as a bigamist and before I ended up doing three years at Her Majesties Pleasure and the twins were taken into care, Doris, Olive and I had all been highly successful mediums on the Spiritualist circuit. But some things were best kept hidden and I was determined to keep it that way. The less I saw of Doris Morris the better. Fortunately for once Beattie was on my side, but as usual for very different reasons.

‘Well one thing’s certain we won’t be paying good money to see that load of old tosh,’ she said, ‘Of course what can you expect when people vote for a LibDem council? Now when the Tories were in power the Town Hall Theatre used to put on some lovely musicals. Even you would have understood them. But look what we got last Christmas; some girl who played a corpse in ‘Casualty’ trying to be Cinderella.’ She blushed a bit and well she might! According to Beattie she never watches programmes like that.

‘I tell you Maureen it’s all bare thighs and more rubbish like this! No wonder this town has become a haven of illegal immigrants. You mark my words Maureen by the time we get to the next election we’ll all be smoking guano!’

’Ganja’, I said, but she shot me one of those famous ‘I happen to know’ looks and I thought ‘well you can smoke bird droppings if you want and tried to deflect her with a leaflet about coach trips to the Cotswolds.

‘Yes all very nice’ she said then looked nervously at her watch. ‘You know I don’t like being out after dark since than man was caught exposing himself in the shopping arcade.’

She tried to tighten her scarf around her neck but then that’s another curious thing about Beattie. Not only doesn’t she have a waist she doesn’t have a neck either. Her head sits straight on her shoulders. Had she possessed a more amenable expression she would be a dead ringer for one of those Russian dolls. But as it is with no neck and everything subjugated by Playtex she often just looks like an angry skittle on the run from a bowling alley.

As soon as we ventured outside I could tell all was not well. Whatever it was that had been following us was still there and that could only mean one thing. The psychic powers that had got me into so much trouble in the past had to be coming back. Maybe they had never really gone? Perhaps the shock of Archie’s bigamy, losing the twins and three years in prison for fraudulent clairvoyance had simply pushed them to one side. Either way I suddenly found myself having to think about a lot of things I didn’t want to think about for the rest of the way home.

Hardly surprising then that I was quiet was it? Not that silence ever stops Beattie having a conversation. She is like nature. She abhors a vacuum. When she is talking to you and you don’t reply she is quite happy to imagine your answers and use them against you later. So by the time we’d reached the hut where the deckchair attendant was arrested for interfering with young boys she had ticked off everything that was right about that afternoon’s funeral. Then she worked systematically backwards to refute each point with something unpleasant.

Yes it had been a lovely spread but Peggy’s children had obviously been brought up not knowing that gluttony was one of the Seven Deadly Sins. The tea had been refreshing but whatever possessed people like that to think they could drink Earl Grey? It was very touching when the grandchildren sang ‘Lord of the Dance’ but a pity they hadn’t bothered to learn all the words. And finally it was nice to see all the men in suits but had nobody told them white socks belonged in a gymnasium?

‘But a eulogy Maureen, I ask you! When did people like Peggy Braithwaite start warranting eulogies? All she ever did was get herself banned from Weight Watchers and spawn that God forsaken brood! Still’ she added momentarily coming to berth alongside the promenade railings,’ at least they tried which is more than can be said for that Shanks rabble.’

Then she let out a shriek and felt the back of her head.

‘Who threw that stone?’



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Funeral Tea

Bell, Book & HandbagPosted by Ian Ashley Mon, August 18, 2014 07:55PM


On to Peggy Braithwaite's Funeral Tea

‘I said are you alright Maureen?’

Foolishly I muttered something about it being too hot in the restaurant. I should have known better. Instead of sympathy I got another salvo of unwelcome advice on the perils of wearing unseemly amounts of other people’s hair on top of your own.

‘Anyway it’s time we were off,’ she said swinging her handbag over her arm. ‘It’s at St Luke’s and if we don’t get there in good time all the best seats will have gone. Remember Eileen Murchison’s? Jammed at the back with all those Boy Scouts? Then get a move on. I’ve no idea why Peggy’s family chose that place. The acoustics are dreadful and the walls are covered in graffiti. They say it’s the play group but where do the under-fives learn words like that unless it’s from their parents? Still have you seen those mothers? How you can expect to bring up a child when you live in a tracksuit I don’t know. Then again I suppose it’s got a wide aisle.’

That was one thing Beattie was right about. She also shot me a triumphant smile when they wheeled Peggy’s coffin in on a trolley, which I will admit was the size of a double wardrobe with very sturdy handles. But she was wrong about the lack of seating. Apart from the immediate family there was only us there. Sadly Peggy’s only close friends in life were Jean Shanks and Frieda Waverley. One of them was dead and the other was in St Mary’s Hospital having had her spleen removed. We didn’t really count either, only being there for the cakes. Still we knew that a small turnout always boded well in terms of catering largesse. Plus judging from the combined tonnage of Peggy’s brood they definitely seemed like a family that enjoyed their food so it looked like we were in for a treat.

‘As soon as that last clod of earth gets thrown in’, sang Beattie to the tune of ‘Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer’,’ we’ll be round that church hall double quick as I don’t fancy being trampled to death under that lot when they whip the tea towels off the sandwiches. Look at that grandchild. You can’t tell me it’s natural for twelve year olds to be that size! And what is that Karen wearing? She looks like a bungalow under an awning!’

Our plan worked. Dust to dust and we were right at the head of the queue. Beattie was over the moon and all over the food. Despite her girdle she managed to eat four chocolate éclairs, three Fondant Fancies and a slice of pork pie. She was so overcome by the size and magnificence of the spread before us that she even risked her immortal soul by telling all Peggy’s children what a wonderful woman their mother had been and how greatly she’d be missed by everyone. All poor Jean’s family had got was a tactless request for more Rennies.

‘Decent milk,’ she hissed using the excuse of a cup of tea to get a good feel of the table cloth. ‘Real linen too! Has to be borrowed surely?’

As far as I was concerned they could have been serving fresh caviar on gold plates stolen from Buckingham Palace for all the difference it made. Without trying to sound dramatic I knew that we were NOT ALONE. Ever since we’d left the restaurant I’d had a feeling that we were being followed. Even in the church I kept turning round, convinced that somebody was watching us. And it wasn’t the Almighty either. By the time we got to the eulogy the feeling was so strong I could feel the hairs on my head standing up, which was no mean feat considering they were buried under £40.00 worth of ‘Hey Big Spender’.

What I needed more than anything was fresh air. Unfortunately my attempt at a speedy exit was thwarted when Peggy’s daughter Karen lumbered over and begged us to take some of the leftover food with us. I think she said something about it only going to waste if we didn’t but it was hard to tell because her mouth was full of Cheesy Wotsits.

‘I doubt that very much!’ Beattie muttered but she did her bit to help and crammed most of a ham and egg pie and a jar of pickle into her handbag. Then she rammed half a dozen scones into mine. Only when our pockets were bulging with mini chocolate rolls were we allowed to leave….



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Seeing ghosts

Bell, Book & HandbagPosted by Ian Ashley Mon, August 18, 2014 07:50PM

...and so it began

Usually my neighbour Beattie’s wrath is reserved for immigrants, unmarried mothers, and people with food allergies. Sometimes even a nature programme can set her off especially if it shows animals mating. Mind you ever since she found herself forced to drink tea made with sterilized milk at Jean Shank’s funeral Beattie had talked about nothing else for the past week.

“£15.00 that wreath cost us Maureen’ she said for the umpteenth time and blowing hard on her lunchtime soup,’ and for what? An organist who managed to make ‘Abide with Me’ sound like ‘Oh I do like to be beside the seaside’, that awful tea and half a Danish pastry you wouldn’t have fed to the birds!’

Now experience has taught me that it’s never a good idea to go about speaking ill of dead and I do tell her but will she listen? No she will not. As far as she is concerned they are gone ‘up there’ and that is that. I know different. Still it’s no good trying to tell Beattie these things. When a person genuinely believes Romanian immigrants eat babies it would be an uphill struggle trying to convince her that the dead do walk amongst us. ‘Speak loudly speak clearly speak now’, and to hell with the consequences is her motto.

It’s all very well her believing that ‘The truth will out’ but I do feel that there are times when true or not things are best left unsaid. Still because Beattie always insists on speaking her mind she’s not what you could call popular. As you can imagine when allowed to roam free across open border policies and into the vast hinterland of a welfare state full of underage teenage pregnancies it is not always a very nice mind to have to listen to.

‘For heaven’s sake Maureen there was even a woman at that funeral in tights and a Lurex cape!’

Although I have learned over the last ten years that it’s never wise to try and argue with Beattie unless you like losing I’d always had a soft spot for Jean’s niece Wanda so I found myself sticking up for her.

‘A Human Cannon Ball’ I said, ‘stops for nothing, not even the death of a Loved One.’

‘Well she could have washed!’ snapped Beattie. She blew so hard on her soup that I felt a splash of Oxtail hit my cheek. ‘That woman reeked of gunpowder.’

Now when you consider that with her limp Wanda could have easily settled for a life on disability benefit instead of carving out a nice little career for herself twice daily on the promenade you’d think Beattie would have admired her enterprise. But no. Wanda Clithold was half Shanks and therefore genetically bound to the sterilized milk fiasco. No amount of limping in Lurex was ever going to change that even if Wanda landed herself on Mars.

Still leaving aside the catering arrangements Beattie did have a point. With or without the added glamour of a local celebrity as funerals went Jean’s was not one of the best. For a start it was at St Jude’s and try as they might no amount of incense will ever get the smell of that burst drain out of the hassocks. Still that’s no excuse to skimp on the wake. Quite the reverse I would have thought. Of course I can think of better ways of spending an afternoon especially as Jean was more Beattie’s friend than mine. However being as Beattie had made me pay good money for a black wool and cashmere coat it seemed a shame not to get the wear out of it. Apparently fake ocelot isn’t suitable as funeral attire, or so I was told. Shame really as I’d always thought it brought a hint of show biz to what can often be a joyless occasion. But what did I know? After all I wasn’t the widow of the late Chairman of the local Chamber of Commerce. I was just plain old Maureen Truscott, ex wife, ex clairvoyant and ex con. But I keep all that to myself.

‘By the way your hair’s twisted’. Beattie waggled her soup spoon at my head. ‘Honestly Maureen if you have to wear a wig to a funeral couldn’t you at least choose one that doesn’t make you look like an out of work magicians assistant?’

Occasionally, on days when even Beattie can see through some of the headlines in the Daily Mail, she keeps her hand in by having a go at me. Sometimes it’s my lack of devotion to housework, sometimes it’s my love of bright coloured emulsion. Quite often it’s the fact that I shop at Top Shop and wear high heels despite being a pensioner. But when all else fails her favourite topic is my collection of ‘diva’ wigs. Now that even she was fed up recounting the failings of Jean’s wake over lunch in the BHS restaurant I could tell she was looking for another victim. And there I was, right in front of her, my own hair hidden under Shirley Bassey.

‘I mean why not wear Thora Hird?’ she said, ‘Far more suitable for a funeral. She did ‘Praise Be’ for a start and there is no way she would make you look like you should be dancing round a pole at a business man’s lunch.’

Now whilst I can often manage to turn a deaf ear to what she calls my ‘slovenly ways’, my ‘hallucinogenic colour schemes’ and ‘my dressing like a teenager’ I won’t hear a word said against any of my wigs. Beattie once accused my ‘Dusty Springfield’ of having nits and we didn’t speak for a week. But I am equally fond of ‘Shirley’. For one thing she’s made of real human hair that has been faithfully styled on a cultural icon and for another I lived on beans on toast for three weeks to pay for her. ‘Thora’ on the other hand was a free gift with ‘Alma Cogan’. But then that was precisely the sort of thing that appealed to Beattie’s parsimonious nature. Anyone who recycles teabags would feel a natural affinity to free nylon fibres.

‘I mean you don’t exactly help yourself Maureen’, she sighed, ‘and even you have to admit that most of the outfits you wear are more suited to women at least half your age and then only Lithuanians hoping to be employed as lap dancers.’

In a way that is true. I never fit the identi-kit granny look favoured by Beattie. She prefers what she calls her ‘heather shades. I call it ‘World at War’ myself but I never say anything. Still, now on funeral days I always make a conscious attempt to tone it down and today had been no different. I thought I looked quite sombre in my black dress and matching coat and gloves. I was thinking Jackie Kennedy, only with more polyester. Beattie was just thinking black thoughts; as usual.

‘If you’d looked after your hair Maureen, like I have, you wouldn’t feel the need to cover up.Still I suppose it was all that peroxide that ruined yours when you worked as a prostitute.’

I swallowed the last mouthful of my carrot and lentil and said nothing. When she’s in this mood I know she is best ignored.

It has to be said that although we have been neighbours in Palmerston Terrace for the last ten years, and as dear to me as she is, if Fate hadn’t pitched us either side of an adjoining wall we would never have even been acquaintances. Outspoken, opinionated and very often downright rude Beattie might be but she is also the nearest thing I have to a friend these days. So very often it’s a case of biting your lip and just letting her vitriol wash over you; like now.

Besides she knew as well as I did that I’d only worked on a fun fair. I’d once let that slip in a moment of weakness during a conversation about short hand typing. Beattie showed me her Pitman’s certificate and I showed her a picture of me in skin-tight Capri pants with a towering blond bee-hive hairdo. I’ll admit that I might have looked a bit flighty when I was ‘Maureen the Waltzer Queen’ but I can honestly say I was never on the game. That was just one of her little fictions. The late Arthur Hathaway having been such a perfect husband was another one. And you didn’t need a magnifying glass to read between those lines! If you listened to Beattie’s tales of marital bliss her Arthur sounded a nasty little piece of work indeed. And if I’m honest I’m not over sure she was exactly sorry to see him go. All that sighing and eye dabbing is just an act if you ask me.

‘Of course when I buried my Arthur....,’ she paused just long enough in the middle of dismembering her bread roll long to assume what she thought was an expression of grief and despair. It always looked more like trapped wind to me. Now usually I hold my tongue. However because I wasn’t about to sit through that particular bench mark of funereal excellence for the umpteenth time I seized the moment.

‘Well I’m sure the catering at Peggy Braithwaite’s wake will be something to look forward to’, I said, adding that we all knew how much Peggy loved her cream cakes.

‘It’ll be more interesting Maureen to see how many pall bearers they needed to carry the coffin’.

Well she did have a point there. Peggy wasn’t exactly what you could call small framed.

‘Most of Paxton’s men are over 60 and wear trusses. You can’t expect them to be heaving that weight about at their age. I wouldn’t be at all surprised they didn’t insisted on wheeling her in, the compensation culture being what it is these days. If you ask me that’s the only reason she’s being buried and not cremated. Imagine all that wood going up, it would probably set light to the chimney.’ She leaned in close enough for me to see where her lipstick had missed her mouth adding in a low voice that she just happened to know that they had to have the casket especially made.

It was a well known fact that Beattie, ‘just happened to know’ a great deal about everything that went on in Biddermouth on Sea. Not that she gossiped. She didn’t need to. Her niece Pauline worked on the switchboard at the local council offices. Unfortunately this meant that everything Beattie ‘just happened to know’ she believed to be placed beyond the reach of rational argument by the rubber stamp of officialdom. Even so I had never believed that one about the mayor having a nuclear fall-out shelter built under the wool shop. Anybody with an ounce of sense only had to look at those road works to see it was gas mains. But Beattie stuck to her guns. Even today she circumnavigates the manhole cover that marks the spot out of respect for the mayoral regalia.

‘Apparently none of the off the shelf models were big enough,’ she whispered before launching back on to her favourite topic, namely her husband’s death.

‘Of course I know I had to have Arthur’s custom made but then a civic funeral is an entirely different occasion. You can’t expect the whole of the Chamber of Commerce to walk bareheaded behind veneered chipboard can you Maureen?’

I obviously said nothing because I heard Beattie repeat herself.

‘.....Can you?’ she said. ‘Are you alright Maureen? You look like you’ve just seen a ghost.’

And in a way Beattie was right. I had just seen, or at least thought I’d just seen Jean Shanks standing outside the supermarket.



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Virgin In The Walls

Other Short StoriesPosted by Ian Ashley Sun, June 15, 2014 10:23PM

‘The Virgin in the Walls’

Of the three girls Sister Pauline considered Deirdre Kerrigan to be the most dangerous. Of course Time would tell but in her twenty six years teaching at The Sacred Heart the good sister had always put her trust in the Lord where her pupils were concerned and she had never been wrong.

Bridget Murphy, with her flaming red hair and flawless complexion was cursed with the sin of Lust. Theresa O’Connell, mousey and mercifully shapeless in her elder sister’s faded green gingham dress already bore the mark of the sin of Sloth. She slouched at her desk, could never scribble so much as a single sentence without leaving a trail of ink blots on the page and, as Sister Pauline had noticed herself on more than one occasion, often appeared to doze whilst listening to the Scriptures. Then again perhaps it was the early stages of rapture, for wasn’t Theresa, unlike the Kerrigan girl, destined to be a Bride of Christ herself?

Yet for all their wicked ways the Murphy’s never missed a Mass. The O’Connell’s were the same; simple folk but good Catholics nonetheless. But the Kerrigan girl, as Sister Pauline could now only ever think of her, was different. With the Almighty’s help Bridget’s Lust would burn itself out on the embers of an early marriage and, God willing, a fruitful union. As for Sloth, well that too would soon be crushed under the strict routine of prayer and the manual labour once Theresa joined the novitiate. But Pride was another matter. Pride was, as the Sister had noted time and time again, the work of Satan himself.

This was why Sister Pauline argued so strongly against awarding Deirdre Kerrigan the school essay prize.

‘It would be for the second year running Reverend Mother,’ she said, ‘and surely we would be failing in our duty to be encouraging the child.’

The Reverend Mother replied that Deirdre’s essay on the miracle of St Bernadette had been an outstanding piece of work. Surely recognizing the girl’s efforts was doing no more than acknowledging that the Lord had given her a talent that she had obviously put to good use?

‘And of her ambition to be the country’s greatest ever writer? Whoever heard of such nonsense?’ argued Sister Pauline, adding that they should all be mindful of the canker of Pride in their midst.

The other nuns nodded. They too knew the signs, knew to be ever watchful. They also knew that girls like Deirdre Kerrigan had passed through Sacred Heart before and there was no reason to suppose that they would not continue to do so in the future. Most came to nothing. Ballymurry had no room for big ideas any more than it had room for dancehalls and cinemas. Life was simple and for the God fearing its’ choices were few. The Sisters saw no harm in reminding their charges that like the road that ran through the village, the paths of righteousness were equally narrow and with more than their fair share of potholes.

It was the story of the grisly discovery in the walls of the ruined convent in Kilgannon that now filled Deirdre’s note book with paragraph after paragraph of research and supposition. The story of St Bernadette and her miracles had been replaced with the on-going saga of the hapless nun and her tragic fate that kept her classmates on tenterhooks with each new breathless instalment. Although in her unformed hand the story changed daily the metaphor of the woman trapped behind the wall remained the same. Now, six weeks after the storm that had done all the damage had subsided, her best friends, Theresa and Bridget, were beginning to get fed up with her tales of novices falling in love with young priests and being punished for their sins.

‘You know I’m beginning to wonder if her name really was Catherine ?’ Deirdre said chewing the end of her pencil.

‘Why does it matter so much what her name was?’ Bridget Murphy tugged at an elastic band and shook her long red hair free from its ponytail. ‘It’s too hot to go walking all that way up to the ruin just to hear another one of your silly stories about a pile of old bones, and besides it happened in Kilgannon not here.’

‘They’re not silly stories,’ said Deirdre.

“They are so”. Bridget loosened her tie and undid the top button of her blouse. ‘Even Theresa thinks they’re silly don’t you Theresa?’

The smallest of the three girls blushed but said nothing.

‘See! What did I tell you? They must be daft if even an eejit like her thinks so.’

Deirdre said that it wasn’t just a story anymore. She had been giving the matter some serious thought, as writers were supposed to do.

'It’s more like a parable,' she said.

Theresa gasped and crossed herself. 'That's blasphemy,' she said. Bridget just shook out her hair and laughed.

'You spend too much time in that room of yours if you ask me', she said.

Deirdre started to speak then changed her mind. What was point? As far as Bridget and Theresa were concerned nobody walled-up nuns anymore so that was that and everything was fine. What they couldn’t see was that the truth was right there in front of their very eyes. Just because the walls were no longer physical didn’t mean that they didn’t exist. More and more these days she felt as if there was a great big one running all the way round their small village trapping her and all the women inside with no chance to escape.

She had confided this fact to Bridget who had given her the sort of look she usually reserved for Theresa’s endless comments on her plans to enter the convent.

‘And where would this wall of yours be then?’ she’d asked. ‘I’ve lived in Ballymurry for sixteen years and two months and know full well that on a clear day you can see all the way to Ballyporeen and beyond. You couldn’t be doing that if there was a wall around the place could you now?’

Back in her room that night Deirdre put the finishing touches to her story. The newspaper had clearly stated that the competition rules demanded it had to be no more than 2500 words long. Hers was exactly that. Not one word had been wasted in the telling of the tale of Sister Catherine and her love for the young priest.

‘This is my way out,’ she thought to herself folding the neatly typed manuscript and slipping it into the envelope. ‘This is my way through the wall.’

In her story they had shut Sister Catherine away because she had dared to make a choice between the life she was expected to live as a nun and the life she had every right to live as a woman. There would have been some sort of trial Deirdre supposed but nobody would have listened to her side of the story. Why only the other day Sister Pauline had said that just because science had disproved many of the miracles the fact that it could not actually prove they had happened was a sure sign of the Will of God at work.

Deirdre reasoned that Sister Catherine would have been powerless against such divine reasoning. All she would have had in her own defense would have been the evidence of her own heart. Not that this cut any ice with her friends when the following day, on their way back from school Deirdre suggested that they go up to the old ruin again.

‘We should say a prayer for Sister Catherine,’ she said.

‘It’s too late’ said Theresa who unlike Bridget had come to believe Deirdre’s story. Sister Catherine had been damned to eternity for her sins and she knew this to be a fact because Bishop Branagh had talked about Damnation in her bible class.

'Then we should pray for the baby,' Deirdre said

Both Bridget and Theresa stared at her open mouthed.

‘They found the bones of a baby in the walled up room,” she continued staring passed their astonished faces. “Just imagine how awful that must have been for her? To be walled up alive with her own child, the symbol of her love for the handsome young priest and hearing its feeble cries growing fainter and fainter as she slowly starved to death.’

‘She?’ Bridget wanted to know how Deirdre knew the baby was a girl?

‘She doesn’t,’ snapped Theresa. ‘There never was a baby.’

‘There was so!” Deirdre replied. ‘And it’s in my story.’

She reached into her satchel and pulled out “The Story of Sister Catherine.

‘It’s all in here.’ She held the sheets of paper towards Theresa.

‘Nobody said anything about a baby on the news programs.’ Theresa held her hands behind her back as if to touch the papers would be to risk Hell itself.

‘Well they wouldn’t would they. It’s not what Catholics want to hear.’

Theresa looked as if somebody had slapped her in the face.

‘Oh for God’s sake you two!’ said Bridget. She snatched the story out of Deirdre’s hand, sat herself down on the dusty bank at the side of the road and began to read aloud in the voice that she used to mimic Sister Pauline.

‘Are you sure this about Sister Catherine?’ she asked when she reached the end.

Deirdre said that it was, on the surface, but underneath it was about all women.

‘And Father Flannary,’ said Theresa. ‘It’s about you and Father Flannary and I think its disgusting so it is. A priest would never do a thing like that. It’s a sin and you’ll burn in Hell for this Deirdre Kerrigan’.

Bridget grabbed a fistful of Theresa’s hair and yanked her back down on to the bank.

‘Theresa O’Connell there isn’t one woman in Ballymurry who doesn’t fancy young Father Flannery’, she said. ‘And don’t you go rolling your eyes at me like that. Why even your own granny’s taken to wearing her false teeth to communion, so she has, and she never did that for Father Kenny, now did she?’

‘That’s different.’

‘T’is not!’

‘T’is so,’ said Theresa, tears welling in her eyes. ‘Anyway priests aren’t like other men. They’re above temptation. That’s why God chooses them.’

‘In that case God wouldn’t be choosing your brother Danny then’, Bridget laughed. ‘Twice he tried to put his hand down my blouse last Friday, Deirdre, twice! Imagine and him with the acne! And don’t you find that shocking with his baby sister here planning on becoming a nun and all that?’

Theresa Murphy struggled to her feet and stood with her arms folded over the crucifix that she wore outside her blouse. She was used to the other girls making fun of her ambition to become a Bride of Christ. But what else was there for any of them to do in Ballymurry except marry drunken hypocrites like her mother had done and have baby after baby after baby until your body just wore out and you looked like a sack of potatoes in an overall?

It was all very well Deirdre talking about books and Bridget talking about boys all the time but even in her own simple way Theresa knew that the reality for girls like them was either a kitchen full of snotty nosed children or the egg factory. Well, it wasn’t her fault if they were that stupid that they couldn’t see what was coming to them? Or was it? Was this her test she wondered? A test sent by the Almighty to prove her worthiness and save Bridget and Deirdre at the same time?

‘Sometimes,’ said Deirdre, ‘that temptation is so great that even priests couldn’t help themselves.

Theresa snorted and said that she didn’t think so.

Bridget just threw back her head and roared with laughter. ‘Don’t tell me Father Flannery felt you up in confession Deirdre Kerrigan!’

‘I away home,’ said Theresa.

‘That’s it Reverend Mother,’ Bridget called out after her. ‘And when you get there you be sure to tell that spotty brother of yours to keep his hands off my tits!’

Together they watched Theresa run back down the road towards the village.

‘Silly bitch’, said Bridget sucking on a stem of grass.

But Deirdre said nothing. With her writer’s eye she saw Theresa as little more than a frightened animal, an animal that had suddenly found itself on the outside of it’s cage and was now desperately trying to find a way back into captivity. She saw the empty satchel bobbing up and down as the girl fled into in the distance, getting smaller and smaller as if crushed to a speck under the weight of her angels and the sins of the world. This would never happen to her. Deirdre Kerrigan would be somebody, someday, somewhere; anywhere but Ballymurry.

Bridget sat up and watched Deirdre watching Theresa making her way down the hill as if the devil himself was at her heels. Whilst she thought it was a crazy idea to go locking yourself away in a convent she could understand why it would appeal to somebody like Theresa whose whole life seemed to consist of one genuflection followed by another. But with Deirdre she could never understand what it was that made her so desperate to escape. Ballymurry wasn’t that bad a place. You could get to Waterford and back in a day if you had the mind to change buses three times each way.

There were also a couple of small factories and the egg place where most of the women who weren’t pregnant worked. And so what if it rained a lot? There were parts of the world where it never rained at all and look what miserable places they were! Always asking for money they were too.

But none of this seemed to matter to Deirdre. She had this dream about being a writer and whilst Bridget agreed that dreams were nice things to have she wondered what happened when they didn’t come true? Mrs Murphy had said that if Deirdre wasn’t careful then she’d end up being left on the shelf. No man liked a woman who thought she knew more than he did.

‘Look what happened to Eve,’ her mother had said.

It was now two weeks since she had sent her story into the competition and every morning Deirdre waited for the post to arrive. Perhaps they would have written back sooner had she put a stamped addressed envelope in with it. At least that way they could have put her out of her misery. As it was with every day that the postman cycled straight passed the Kerrigan’s gate, Deirdre felt herself becoming more and more invisible, as if she was fading away along with the hope inside her. She wondered if this was how Sister Catherine felt when she realised that nobody would rescue her from behind the wall.

Bridget did her best to cheer her up. She let Deirdre be the first person to hear of her engagement to Theresa’s cousin Billy O’Sullivan. She even let her try on the ring.

‘It’s a beauty isn’t it?’ Bridget tried turning the diamond this way and that in an attempt to get the small stone to catch the light. She said that she had to keep it on a string round her neck at the moment as they hadn’t told their parents yet.

‘Mind you how much longer I’ll be able to keep the rest secret is anybody’s guess.’ She patted her stomach and Deirdre’s jaw dropped.

‘You mean…?’

‘Three months.’ she said. ‘Still I don’t suppose we’ll be the first bride and groom in Ballymurry with an extra guest at the wedding do you? Just think, four hundred years ago it could have me behind your silly old wall. Thank God the worlds changed a bit since then eh? You know in Dublin they let women actually drive cars so they do.’

At school Sister Pauline smiled secretly at Deirdre’s disappointment and delivered yet another stinging lecture on the sin of Pride. She told them all how Lucifer had been the brightest angel and still been cast down into the fiery pit of Hell. The Reverend Mother was more sympathetic. She suggested praying to the Virgin Mother for guidance.

But how could you pray to a God who decreed that young women should be walled up and starved to death thought Deirdre? And wasn’t that what was happening now, today, in Ballymurry and thousands of other places just like it? The walls may not have been of stone any more, but they were still there, cutting them off, hemming them in; suffocating them all slowly.

That night as she sat at her desk a movement outside caught Deirdre’s eye and she looked up in time to see the night clouds broken up by a sudden wind and the late evening sky emerged the colour of the Virgins mantle with its’ hem on fire.

'It’s a sign', she said and immediately cursed herself for being little better than Theresa who once claimed to have seen the face of St Agnes in a cloud.

She heard the clock in the steeple of St Patrick’s define the hour and looked down into the street below just in time to see Father Flannery tuck his hands in his sleeves and head home into the shadows. For a moment Deirdre wondered if he had looked up and seen her, golden, there at her window, just as the young priest had seen Sister Catherine in her story and that night she slept comforted by the thought of their eyes meeting oh so briefly.

The following morning Deirdre was surprised to find her parents sitting in the Reverend Mothers office. At first she’s thought Sister Barbara had called her out of class because the great news had finally come and the Reverend Mother had wanted to tell her in person. But then she saw that her mother’s eyes were red with weeping and her father sat, straight backed with his fists clenched on his knees, his face a blank.

Bishop Branagh was standing black against the light of the window with his back towards them. On the desk she saw a few typed pages and knew at once it could only be one thing. For a minute she thought again that she had won but another look at her parents, one broken and one silently defiant, told her another story.

‘Sit down my child,’ The Reverend Mother signaled to an empty chair.

His Grace turned, looked directly at her and spoke immediately of his great distress and disappointment. He said that the Church had to take a certain responsibility for what had happened. There was always a risk in appointing a young and inexperienced man to such a position so early in his ecclesiastical career. He also thanked God that a right-minded person had seen fit to warn the Reverend Mother of such a disgusting document in the first instance.

‘Naturally’, he added, ‘I have spoken with the editor and there is no question of such a story ever being considered for publication.’ He added that he was also saddened Deirdre had seen fit not to follow the teachings of the Holy Sisters on the subject of chastity but he hoped that with guidance her repentance would be genuine and absolute.

‘It was a story,’ Deirdre said quietly.

The Bishop smiled and slowly tore the pages into tiny precise strips.

‘There is an aunt I believe,’ he said talking over her head.

Deirdre’s father nodded and said, ‘In Killarney’.

His wife clutched his hand.

‘And the necessary arrangements have been made with St Theresa’s?’

The Reverend Mother nodded and Bishop Branagh called it ‘Deidre’s second chance’.

‘I said, it was a story Your Grace’, Deirdre said, ‘That’s all it ever was. I swear to God it was about the bones they found after the storm blew the wall down in Kilgannon. I swear to God I haven’t….not with Father Flannery! Not with anybody!’

‘It goes without saying,’ he said ignoring her, ‘that the young man will be moved to another parish, somewhere larger where he will enjoy the support of older more experienced clergy and have time to reflect on the gravity of the situation. I believe we should all thank the Almighty for his infinite mercy.’

Everybody nodded except Deirdre.

Then her mother spoke. She said, in a voice a little above a whisper that she hoped Father Flannery would find it in his heart to forgive her daughter for the terrible thing that she had done.

On the way out they passed Theresa O’Connell in the hallway. She crossed herself and looked the other way.

*************************

The school minibus is waiting at the foot of the hill. Sister Catherine raises her hand. She calls to the stragglers to be quick or they will be left behind. It feels strange for her to be back in Ballymurry after all this time. She hadn’t wanted to come but the Reverend Mother had said it was God’s Will that she should.

Young Deirdre O’Sullivan says she is out of breath with the running but wants to know if this is the place where they found the dead lady?

Sister Catherine ceases to smile. That was a long time ago she says and besides it is best not to think of such things.

‘My nanna said she’d cried when she read the newspaper,’ says the child. ‘Because they’d been to the same school and the dead lady used to be her friend and all. Now my nanna says she’s in hell twice over because she had brought disgrace on her family and she had killed herself and her baby.

Young Danny O’Sullivan pushes his sister out of the way. ‘She died because her heart broke,’ he says taking Sister Catherine by the hand and jumping on to the step of the bus. ‘How can your heart break? It’s not like it’s made of glass or anything is it Sister?’

The nun says no but sometimes it can feel as if it has. She ruffles his flaming hair, hair she remembers being the same colour as his nanna’s and the voices come back to her of three girls from a time when their stories were all unfinished.

The girl says they wanted to say a prayer but they couldn’t remember the lady’s name. She thinks it might have been Theresa something or other and Sister Catherine nods and says that it was indeed.

‘And I believe your nanna had another friend called Deirdre’ she adds, ‘The same name as you, who wanted nothing more in the world than to be a writer. Maybe your nanna has spoken of her too?’

The children look at each other then shake their heads. They say that perhaps she is dead as well. After all nanna is terribly old.

And as the bus pulls out of Ballymurry with its ruin on the hill, Sister Catherine looks neither to the left nor the right but looking straight ahead tries to see all the way to Ballyporeen and beyond. But her tears get in the way. All she can see is a sky the colour of the Virgin’s mantle with its hem on fire.


@copyright Ian Ashley 2014

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