When Mary went to work for Bridget and Stephen, Sean was relieved. When she was a child, they had been each other’s world. As she had grown up, he had hoped she might do well enough in her exams to train as a teacher and join him as one of his staff, even, one day, to take over from him. But she had disappointed him. Her marks dropped. She grew bored and disaffected. She took up reading magazines and tawdry novels. She hauled Aoife’s old dressing table from the spare room into her bedroom and spent hours brushing her hair with her mother’s old chrome-backed brush. She asked for pocket money, which he could not afford, so it seemed a good idea when she replied to the advert placed by Bridget for a live-in mother’s help.
She enjoyed the work there. She told him of the children’s antics, and Bridget’s moods, of the books they had, and Stephen’s paintings. Bridget said good things of her, and soon the arrangement was made permanent. She was allowed to live in a smaller cottage, hardly more than a shed, and paid quarterly. The children were well turned out when they came to school and to church, and it was clear Mary loved them. She seemed contented to live her own life with the family, and had no interest in walking out with any of the local boys.
One day she brought one of Stephen’s paintings home. It was a picture of her, in a chair, in a patch of sunshine, with an impish smile. It was a good likeness, not just of how she looked but the life of her. He did not know why but it made him uneasy, as if there was a connection which he had lost. He told her to take it back. Then there was a change. Now when they spoke, she said little about the children, and never mentioned Bridget. It was all Stephen this and Stephen that. One evening he had snapped.
‘You’ve got a crush on him, haven’t you?’
‘No I have not!’ she retorted, colouring. ‘He’s an artist. He speaks to me of higher things. You wouldn’t understand.’
‘Well, just you be careful, Mary. He’s an O’Hanlon, whatever airs and graces he may give himself…’
She had stomped upstairs and not come down again. At breakfast next morning, she refused to sit with him and had left early. He feared she had fallen in love. Within the week, she was back home, angry and tearful, saying only that she had rowed with Bridget and been dismissed. He guessed at the cause of the argument, and was secretly glad. And then he found another of Stephen’s pictures, in her room, and was scandalised. He told her it had to stop. The next day he heard her being sick upstairs. In the morning. She began to put on weight. The signs were unmistakeable.
Sean was aghast. His world began to cave in. Everything he had built up – the school, his position in the community, the esteem of the people that mattered – was about to be smashed. It would destroy both of them. But there could be no abortion. That was out of the question. He went to see Father Flynn and put it all before him.
‘Don’t worry Sean,’ the priest had chided. ‘Nobody need ever know if we act quickly. Mary will have to go to a convent in the North where they take in unmarried mothers. She will have to stay there until the baby is old enough to be adopted, and find a job up there – there’s plenty of work in Belfast – and maybe come back when she has found a husband. I know the Mother Superior there. I’ll phone her this evening. But we need to move fast…’