Penance by Theresa Talbot

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Penance Theresa Talbot

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Published by Strident Publishing Ltd 22 Strathwhillan Drive The Orchard Hairmyres East Kilbride G75 8GT Tel: +44 (0)1355 220588 info@stridentpublishing.co.uk www.stridentpublishing.co.uk Published by Strident Publishing, 2015 Text ŠTheresa Talbot, 2015 Cover art & design by Ida Henrich

The moral rights of the author and illustrator have been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher. A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library. ISBN 978-1-910829-02-8 Typeset in Plantin by Andrew Forteath | Printed by CPI Antony Rowe The publisher acknowledges support from Creative Scotland towards the publication of this title.

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PROLOGUE Glasgow, 1958 The body had been wrapped in a piece of torn sheet, then stuffed into the box. Sally came in from the cold, stopping at the back door to stamp her feet and shake off the wet earth caking her boots. They were miles too big and tied around the ankle with string. Her skinny wee legs were mottled blue with the cold. She caught Irene Connolly watching her from a third floor window, her face and hands pressed hard against the glass. Sally gestured for her to ‘beat it’, hoping to God she’d go back to bed before there was trouble. Sally’s footsteps sent the rats scurrying for cover as she opened the door. Tiny claws scraped and clicked on the stone floor, tails slithering like big, fat worms. There were two bundles stored overnight in the pantry. Sally carried them through and laid them on the table beside the third. Each held a similar bundle. Tightly bound. Carefully wrapped. Like tiny Egyptian mummies, so small they could easily fit into one box. She pushed a strand of hair from her eyes, wiping the sweat from her brow at the same time. Despite the cold, beads of perspiration clustered on her forehead; her thin shirt had become damp and clung to her back from the sheer effort of digging the hardened earth out in the yard. Sally’s small wiry frame concealed a surprising physical stamina. The mental stamina came from knowing no other way of life. Some said she was simple – ‘There’s a waant wi that yin,’ they’d say. Sally let them think what they liked. The lid balanced precariously on top of the third bundle, which was still warm. It took all her weight to hold it down. A tiny

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bone cracked under the pressure, but she carried on regardless. She took a nail from between her teeth and hammered it into the wood. She did this with all six nails before being fully satisfied the lid was secure. As she wiped the sweat and mucus from her top lip, she stopped dead in her tracks. She pushed her ear against the makeshift coffin and froze. There was no mistaking the tiny cries from within.

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CHAPTER 1 Glasgow, 2000 ‘Take this, all of you, and drink from it.’ Father Tom Findlay held the chalice above his head. ‘This my blood…’ The meagre congregation mouthed the words along with him. He looked out at his flock and could have wept. A dozen at best. Mostly old, mostly women, mostly with nowhere else to go. All huddled around the pews closest to the radiators. Still, at least he had a job. He took just one sip. Meticulously he wiped the rim of the chalice clean with a linen cloth and handed it back to the old priest by his side, before walking down the stairs of the altar. He wanted to believe he carried the sacred body of Jesus Christ in his hands. He wanted to but couldn’t. A handful of people shuffled sideways out of the pews to get their daily bread. He was desperate to give them more, but he really had nothing left to give. The first supplicant was too frail to shuffle the few feet to the altar; he went to her first. Walking over to her pew, he smiled, pretending not to notice the faint smell of piss masked by the thick musky perfume. ‘Body of Christ.’ He tried not to gag as he placed the communion wafer in her slack mouth, and looked away when her ulcerated tongue licked the crumbs from her parched lips. ‘Amen,’ she replied, then wound her shaky arthritic fingers round his, and bent to kiss his hand. ‘Thank you, Father. Thank you, Father.’ Tom felt like a complete fraud as he prised his hand away and left her rocking back and forth, her milky eyes spilling with gratitude that the priest had gone to all that trouble. As he turned to go back to the altar there was a collective

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sharp intake of breath from the congregation. He turned as his elderly colleague, Father Kennedy, stumbled towards him and fell to the floor. The weak autumn sunshine streaming through the stained glass windows gave his ashen face an undeserved healthy pink glow. His catatonic stare was fixed on the crucifix. Tom rushed to his side and felt for a pulse. But there was none. Father Kennedy’s frail body lay prostrate on the altar: the ultimate offering, gold chalice by his side. The puddle of wine became a blood-red snake that trickled its way along the marble floor, reaching out for him, pausing briefly to lick its lips before creeping into his white cassock. * Oonagh O’Neil popped a couple of aspirins in her mouth and with masochistic delight pushed the Dyson along the Persian rug – the only carpet of her West End home. It was becoming a daily ritual; she had a cat and asthma. But once or twice a week she’d get someone else to come and push it for her. Oonagh had good days and bad days. Today was a bad day. Time was meant to be the great healer. But not for her. All it did was close over the gaping wound, sealing it at the edges but somehow trapping the grief inside. She missed her dad. Looking out of the window she presented her own forecast: ‘Dull and damp with a warm front coming in from the west, but feeling cool in the northerly wind.’ One of her first jobs had been as a weather girl for a low-budget satellite television station. The gig had been easy enough, the hardest part had been finding ways to make ‘wet and windy’ sound interesting. Squally showers had been a particular favourite. She had come a long way since then. Maybe too far, she mused. The shrill of the phone made her jump. The answering machine kicked in after three rings and Gerry’s voice screeched through the house. ‘Oonagh, are you in? If you’re there, pick

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up. Jeez-oh.’ She raced into the hall and grabbed the receiver. ‘Hiya. What’s wrong?’ ‘What’s wrong? Where the hell are you? No, don’t tell me, in your house – on the phone.’ Gerry was well used to Oonagh’s sarcasm. ‘You’re meant to be here to record the trail for tonight’s programme. We’ve only got the studio until…’ ‘Oh shit. Sorry, Gerry…completely forgot. Look, get me a cab and I’ll be there in ten minutes.’ ‘That fat bastard Ross is kicking up a stink. You know what he’s like. Trouble-making little…’ ‘Darling – we’re wasting time. Order the taxi now, I’ll throw a bit of slap on my face and by the time it gets here I’ll be ready to shoot the crow.’ Without waiting for a reply she hung up and took the stairs two at a time to the spare bedroom that served as a massive walkin-wardrobe. A row of navy jackets – identical to the untrained eye – hung on one rail. She chose the Chanel, perfect over the plain white silk shirt and cream trousers she was wearing. It didn’t take her long to put on her ‘telly face.’ She had it down to a fine art. By the time the taxi was blaring its horn she was blotting her lipstick with a tissue. Oonagh perched on the back seat, and jotted down her script. As soon as it was finished she called Gerry from her mobile and dictated it to him; that way he could get it on auto-cue before she arrived. Twenty seconds was all that was needed, but she wanted to be ready to record as soon as she was inside the studio. Tonight’s programme – an exposé of a Glasgow sun-bed salon fronting a money laundering racket – would be the first in brand-new six-part series The Other Side. It was Oonagh’s baby; a hard-hitting look at Scotland’s seedier underbelly. The first five programmes were already in the can. The last one just needed a few finishing touches. And she could do without any

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more bother from The Fat Bastard. He’d been hell-bent on trying to scupper her plans from the word go. When she’d first presented the idea to Ross Mitchell, Oonagh had made it clear she intended to present, write and help produce the entire series. She’d been their main anchor-woman for over three years, presenting the weekday news each evening, but she was sick of the talking-head routine and missed researching and developing her own ideas. Ross had dismissed the whole thing. Told her it wouldn’t work. Nothing wrong with the idea per se, he’d said, it was just that the public wouldn’t take to her being aggressive, hard-hitting. If she wanted to branch out…why not try ‘day time’? Oonagh had known he was talking a pile of crap, and had gone above his head, taking her idea to Alan Gardner, head of news and factual programmes. Within a month she’d had a full production team, and the budget for a pilot run of six programmes. That had been eight months ago, and Ross still had the hump. Petty bastard. Petty Fat Bastard. As the taxi neared the door of the studios, Gerry was out in the street, smoking a roll-up and pacing like an expectant father. Despite the obvious rush, he still had time for an overthe-top air kiss. He flapped his arms about his head. ‘It’s all right, I’ve covered for you.’ He was wearing a black tee-shirt with a picture of Charles Manson on the front and He’s not the Messiah – he’s a very naughty boy printed underneath. Despite being in his mid-fifties, his hair was carefully teased into short orange and blond tufts. ‘I don’t know what I’d do without you, Gerry.’ And she meant it. A good PA was vital in the business. One you could trust, not just some ambitious wannabe who saw it as the first rung on the television ladder, a stepping stone to ‘better things’. It was the battle of the fittest in this game. The ‘fans’ who slavishly sent her mail, begged for a signed photograph,

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then perhaps a guided tour round the studio, were the same ones who the very next week would write to the studio bosses offering to work for nothing. It would only be a matter of time before her age and experience would be used against her, and the next bright young thing would be stepping into her Jimmy Choo’s. She walked quickly down the corridor, straight through both sets of double doors into the studio, and sat on the plush blue chair in front of the camera, crossing her legs at the ankle. She blew Ross a kiss, knowing he’d be watching from the gallery, cursing her, not for being late but because she was on time, leaving him little to moan about. The floor manager gave her a five second cue, Oonagh smoothed down her already immaculate chinlength bob. The red light came on above camera B. ‘Three…two…one…’ * As expected, she did it in one take. Oonagh O’Neil never made mistakes. Not on air anyway. Gerry gave her the thumbs up. ‘Brilliant.’ That was his word of the month. As usual he did the mother-hen routine, unclipping her mike, teasing her hair, wiping away imaginary specks of dust from her shoulders. ‘Now, Alan Gardner wants you to pop your head in before you run off.’ Alan’s door was open and he was perched on his desk looking at the running order for the evening’s news on his PC. ‘Hi, Oonagh.’ He gestured to the chair for her to sit down. ‘Be with you in a tick.’ He fiddled about with the order of the stories, changed the sequence, then changed them back to their original format. ‘There, that’s better.’ Oonagh said nothing. Just grinned. She was used to Alan. ‘Oonagh, do you know if there’s any footage of Father Kennedy kicking about?’

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‘Yeah, there must be loads in the library, there was a whole lot taken last year when he was doing those pro-life rallies. And the debate I did with him’ll still be in archives. Why, what’s the old git done this time?’ ‘Nothing,’ Alan said, without looking up. ‘He’s dead.’ Oonagh gripped the arms of the chair. ‘Dead? Bloody hell. How? What happened?’ ‘Died on the altar.’ ‘You’re joking.’ ‘Hardly. The diocese is just off the phone. Collapsed during eleven o’clock mass no less. A trooper right to the end. Never missed a trick, did he. We’ll give him forty-five seconds in the second half. Just put a still picture up, but we’d best have a bit of footage on standby in case any of the other items get…’ Oonagh didn’t wait for him to finish. ‘But I was meant to meet him later. I had an interview booked. He called me last night and arranged it.’ ‘Looks like you’ve got the afternoon off then, doesn’t it? What did he want to speak to you about anyway?’ Oonagh felt a tiny prick of excitement. ‘I don’t know. But he said it was important.’ ‘Ach, you know what he was like. Probably nothing.’ ‘Nothing? Alan, I’d been badgering Kennedy for an interview for the Magdalene programme for months. Then out of the blue he called me.’ ‘Well, whatever it was, he’s taken it with him to the grave.’ Oonagh’s eyes widened, she opened her mouth to speak, Alan held up his hand. ‘Oonagh, I’m teasing. Not everything’s a bloody story. He must have been at least a hundred and twenty. He was going bloody ga-ga for fuck’s sake. He was always on the blower to me spouting some nonsense or other…’ Oonagh stood to leave, her mind racing. ‘Right, I need to

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crack on, my taxi’s on wait and return, so…’ But Alan was only half listening, his attention already diverted by yet another crisis.

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CHAPTER 2 Glasgow, 2000 The pair drove from Govan Police Station in silence. Alec Davies felt like shit. He was tired. Tired and fed up. His eyes stung from ten days of back-to-back late-shifts, and a tension headache was beginning somewhere around the base of his skull. Despite the toothpaste and mouthwash, the taste of stale Glenmorangie lingered in his mouth. Last night had been heavier than usual. He was getting too old for this. He licked his front teeth, forcing his tongue up under his top lip. They headed south towards the old Crossmyloof Ice Rink – a supermarket for many years now – and left into Darnley Road. ‘The good houses, eh?’ said the clown sitting next to him on the passenger seat. The silence had been too good to last. They had been thrown together three months ago and it was supposed to be a six-month attachment. He didn’t know if he would last without thumping him. Bloody police graduate entrance scheme. What a load of old shite. ‘See this part of The Shields,’ McVeigh continued, pointing out the window, warming up for a full-blown session. Davies missed McAndrew. He hadn’t really believed him when he’d said he was retiring. ‘Do you know how much the flats are going for around here?’ McVeigh continued. Old men retired. Not forty-eight-year-old guys. Christ, he wasn’t far off that himself, but had joined the force later than McAndrew. It would be ten years before he could access his pension, and right now that seemed like a lifetime. McVeigh let out a low, slow whistle through the gap between his front teeth. ‘Big money, that’s what.’ He nodded his head and widened his eyes.

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It was all right for McAndrew, he could lie in bed all day if he wanted. Davies turned the radio up. Surely McVeigh knew he was getting on his tits. He had to. No one could be that bloody stupid. Although looking at that hair and that jacket…maybe McVeigh was the exception to the rule. Davies drummed his fingers on the steering wheel; he was bored with the conversation, bored with McVeigh and bored with life in general. He couldn’t be arsed. He needed his bed. He flicked on the window wipers with his pinkie as the first drops of rain spat onto the windscreen, then gripped the wheel tight enough to turn his knuckles white. McVeigh opened his mouth to speak, but took one look at Davies’ face and shut up. As usual there were road works on the Kingston Bridge. Down to one lane northbound. The fumes from the lorry in front wormed through the car’s ventilation system and caught the back of his throat, and the rain smeared the muddy city atmosphere across his windscreen. ‘Where we going anyway?’ McVeigh asked. Davies double-checked the text message, a wee smile played on his lips. He hadn’t exactly been a rookie cop when he’d first crossed paths with her, but nor had he been the embittered old sod he was now. She’d been different too…well had looked different anyway. The sparkle, the shine had always been there but none of the polish. Not in the early days. He glanced at his phone again. He knew where he was supposed to meet her, but it gave him something to do with his fingers, helping him resist the strong temptation to poke them in McVeigh’s eyes. Despite the weather, once they were off the bridge it didn’t take long to ease through the morning traffic into the West End. The rain was now falling in bucket loads. It created rivers along the blocked drains in the gutters, and battered off the car roof so

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fiercely that McVeigh raised his voice an octave in case Davies couldn’t hear him. ‘Oh, Maryhill.’ He pointed to the road sign. ‘That’s my old patch!’ At least he hadn’t said, ‘You can see my house from here,’ and for that Davies was truly grateful. He swung off the main road and into the side street just as Oonagh O’Neil was locking her car. He pulled over and grinned, watching her dodge the puddles as she ran towards the pub, out of the rain. She waved when she reached the door, letting him know she’d get the drinks in. McVeigh’s jaw hung open when he saw her. ‘Bloody hell! Punching a bit above your weight there, are you no’?’ ‘Ach, just shut up, eh.’ Davies slammed the door and walked away, leaving McVeigh to baby-sit the car.

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