Charlie O’Neill was going on his first date in almost two years. He felt a mixture of excitement and nerves swirling around in his stomach like the ingredients of a dodgy cocktail mixture. The audible noises coming from him were similar to a washing machine. He hoped this would calm down when his date Martine arrived.
Martine and Charlie had met at the Octoberfest beer festival in a local brewery through Charlie’s sister. On the night conversation had flowed seamlessly between them as did the kisses at the end of the night, but that didn’t come as a surprise considering the potent beers they’d both gorged themselves on. They swapped numbers and he text her the next morning forgetting all the rules his friends told him existed after first meeting someone. She was happy to see he wasn’t playing silly games with her and accepted his gentle suggestion of lunch on Sunday afternoon.
So today was their proper first date. Charlie had a hazy memory of what Martine looked like but all he knew for definite that she was Spanish. He couldn’t remember exactly what they had discussed on the night and he regretted once again trying a pint of 12% beer towards the end of the night. Martine had actually been a bit less drunk than Charlie but had noticed that even in his drunken state that he was a perfect gentleman and that even though slightly scrawny he was quite attractive.
Charlie was waiting for five minutes outside the little gastropub on Sunday’s Well Avenue when a brown-eyed girl with even tanned skin and a beaming smile approached him. Now the memories of the first meeting flooded back to him. She smelt exactly like the first time they’d met; of coconut shampoo, coffee and toothpaste. She smelt wonderful to him even from a distance and he beamed back at her, more relaxed now. His stomach stopped its spin cycle and he felt the nerves ease away after a couple of minutes chat.
Martine was living in Blarney Street and Charlie in Shanakiel so lunch in the quaint little gastropub within walking distance was a spark of genius out of Charlie. They ordered a delicious bottle of white wine – which they agreed on immediately, a good early sign of compatibility. Nobody would have guessed by their easy comfortable way that they were practically strangers. Their main courses were as delicious as the wine but the highlight of the meal was dessert. A moist orange and cardamom cake served with homemade chocolate ice cream which they both ordered left them satiated. They sat for another hour and polished off the bottle of wine chattering animatedly with each other. At 6.30 pm they were politely asked to leave by the last-standing waiter waiting to close up for Sunday and enjoy his only evening off. They were oblivious to his annoyance so on all accounts the afternoon was a success.
Charlie was out to impress and after paying the bill asked her if she’d like to take a stroll up Shanakiel and make the most of the dry and crisp Autumn evening. Also being the first date, he was likely to agree to anything to impress her! When Martine asked him could they investigate the old convent building he said yes nonchalantly despite a slightly sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. He hoped it didn’t start swirling again and make some gruesome noises that might disgust her.
His earliest memory of the convent was when his mother had threatened to send him there and he would be forced to stay with all the other unwanted children and spend his days scrubbing the floors of the convent with a toothbrush. What Charlie only found out in later years was that this was very close to reality for the women who’d been sent there. Their torture had only ended 20 years ago, by which time a lot of the women remembered it as their only home.
Martine had only been in Ireland a couple of months and didn’t know the harrowing history of the old building, which was not only an old convent but also a Magdalene laundry. Martine needed to write a story for her weekly writing class, which she’d told him all about during their late lunch. Charlie hid his apprehension at investigating the same building that had caused many sleepless nights as a child, all for the sake of impressing Martine.
He took a few deep breaths as they walked up the steep hill towards the entrance to the convent. There was a huge steel gate there ever since someone had set fire to the old laundry building last Winter. So many people wanted to rid the area of the horrible memories and feelings the now derelict building held that finding the culprit was impossible. Charlie was hopeful that they wouldn’t get past the massive gate and get on with what had been a great evening so far.
Fate threw Charlie a curveball that evening however because the gate swung open a slight bit as they approached it as if the property was welcoming them. He was instantly suspicious, wary that a security guard or even worse a gang of hooligans might be responsible for this. Yet he ploughed on, the sick feeling growing in his stomach. He desperately tried to appear manly despite his gut feelings of slight dread.
Martine was ecstatic that the gate was open. “Yes we can get in!” At that point Charlie smiled inwardly feeling pleased. He did think it slightly strange however that her level of excitement was growing the closer they got to the house. “Who knows what other things excited her?” he pondered. By now they had reached the front door of the oppressing convent. He felt a sense of depression and anxiety building within him. There was no turning back now or he’d lose all her respect so they pushed in the heavy wooden door, despite the rot.
Now that they had entered the building a smell of talc, rot and damp accosted his nostrils. Martine didn’t seem to even notice. His hand brushed the corridor wall and he shuddered. It was dark in the hallway but he could feel a sticky substance on his hand. He wiped it off his pants grimacing. He was starting to think that maybe this making a first impression wasn’t worth it. Martine led them into the first room, her face barely visible except for her shiny white teeth. She still sounded visibly excited and happy, apparently oblivious to the depressing atmosphere and sickly smells.
The room they’d entered had dirty stained glass windows and ornate stone carvings on the walls of religious icons. “Got enough inspiration for your writing now?” he asked her. “This place is so atmospheric and ornate , it must have been really something in its day” she replied with a look of awe on her sweet tanned face. She was right of course , it had – a thing of true horror and secrecy. The room they’d entered had stained glass windows and ornate holy stone carvings on the walls; this must have been the prayer room.
They heard a huge bang come from one of the rooms down the hall. They jumped, slightly spooked and looked around them all the while staying silent to try to decipher the cause of the bang. They strained their ears and heard nothing for a few seconds. Was there a distant sound of music? They were both totally freaked out by this stage yet held to the spot in shock. The music got slightly louder. “Swan Lake?” Martine whispered. He had a vague memory of an old jewellery box belonging to his sister playing the same tune. It had the same stilted tinny sound as the music box had all those years ago.
“Martine, I think we should get out of here, there’s somebody else in here” he hissed, every thought of impressing her had long left him. They crept to the door of the musty room trying to make as little noise as possible. They were only a few steps from the door when the door creaked slightly inward and through the gap slowly rolled a filthy red ball. The both shrieked and grabbed for each other; beads of sweat broke out on Charlie’s forehead. Suddenly cries of laughter broke out in the hallway and Charlie raced out just in time to see three hooded teenagers racing out the main door. “Jesus! I knew there was somebody in there!” Charlie thought to himself.
He turned back to Martine and they both laughed slightly hysterically. He pulled her close to him for the first time since their drunken smooch at the beer festival and they shared a giddy nervous kiss.
“Plenty of inspiration here. Ready to explore a little more?” he joked. Martine however didn’t pick up his joking tone and gave a determined little smile back at him nodding in agreement. Although every fibre of his being struggled with staying in the house he didn’t want to disappoint her. Hoping to enjoy another intimate moment with her he tried to calm his quick-beating heart and took tight grip of her hand in his slightly sweaty one.
They headed towards the second room both slightly more relaxed knowing the cause of the disturbances. The next room was very dark, the large bay window covered by heavy dusty red velvet curtains with an overlay of cobwebs. There was a brown streak all along the side and Charlie thought he could smell a slight stench of faeces. They both wrinkled their noses in disgust. The room was empty except for an old style abacus on the grubby wooden floor.
Martine bent to pick it up to inspect it more closely. She hadn’t seen one of these since she was a little child, even then it had been an old toy of her mother’s. While Martine was still enthralled with the abacus, Charlie had gone to the corner of the room and was staring straight at the wall as if stuck in a trance. He muttered something unintelligible to Martine so she put the abacus back on the ground and called his name softly. He didn’t respond at all, perfectly still. She heard a noise from the ground of wood on metal and looked to see where the noise was coming from. One of the wooden beads on the abacus moved slowly and deliberate from one side to the other. She gasped in disbelief, stumbling across the room towards Charlie.
Charlie had moved slightly now and she saw something held in his hands. A faded black and white picture of a young plain woman grasping a toddler; neither were smiling. Charlie snapped out of his trance staring at Martine’s shocked and terrified visage. He felt groggy and stiff and was unsure how he’d made his way to the corner of the room.
“Charlie, are you ok?” she cried desperately. He nodded silently and looked at the picture in his hand confused. His hand was slightly shaking as he turned on his phone flashlight to look at the photo. Martine stood staring uncomfortably at him. He felt a wave of misery and desperation rolling over him. He flipped it over to show light rushed writing in pencil on the back. “Come and get us as soon as you can. After next week he’ll be taken from m” he read lowly aloud. It looked unfinished but even those few words sounded desperate and unhappy. Martine bit her lip trying not to cry. “Charlie, what happened here? This wasn’t a holy place?” she quizzed him slightly. She was clearly upset, her voice slightly angry and her native accent stronger suddenly.
Charlie stared at her face, she didn’t look half as pretty as earlier and he felt like he was staring at a complete stranger now, all memories fading rapidly from his frazzled mind. He barely remembered their exit from the house and or the walk to her house on Blarney Street. Martine knew immediately he’d lost all interest in her. He didn’t attempt to hold her hand again and answered all her questions with one word answers so she’d stopped trying entirely. At her door he stepped back as if he were afraid to come near her so she ran inside and didn’t wait to wish him goodnight.
She went inside to the cosy living room where her housemates sat watching a silly reality TV show. She felt herself calm slightly and curled up on the couch with a sigh. “Another one bites the dust” she moaned to them, “and this one seemed so normal”. They comforted her with chocolate, wine and laughter like any good friends. She told them of the lovely time they’d had in the restaurant followed by a small stroll and exploring of a creepy old convent. She didn’t mention the abacus or the picture, trying to blank it out of her own mind completely. She regaled them with the tale of Charlie and his unorthodox behaviour. After two bottles of wine they’d decided that had Charlie obviously wanted more than a simple kiss in the dark convent and she was better off rid of him!
She woke up the next morning with a slightly pounding head and completely soaked in sweat. She’d been tossing and turning all night long but didn’t remember any of her dreams. She thought about Charlie on the odd occasion over the next couple of weeks and avoided his sister in work. He never contacted her again so she assumed he was most likely seeing someone else and tried to forget their brief encounter. Over three weeks after their Sunday date she arrived late as usual into the office on Monday morning looking slightly dishevelled and tired after a weekend spent partying. There was a very sombre air in the office. Something was very wrong. She slid into her chair and leant in to her work colleague at the next desk and whispered to her “What’s going on? Was somebody fired?” Judy whispered back to her, looking slightly ill.
“Cara O’Neill’s brother died last night. They’re saying he was found starved to death and holding some old toy or something…. ” stuttering, “it’s just awful.”
Martine felt her stomach heave. She turned to her desk and projectile vomited all her over her computer keyboard. Bits of stinking half digested bagel flooded the keys. Her vision swam before her and she vomited again, she felt thick lumpy hot liquid drowning her shirt and she collapsed to the ground. Judy bent down to help her up. She managed to drag her on her office chair but didn’t escape blotches of vomit on her own clothes.
Her vision cleared and she felt slightly better. Judy leaned over her looking very anxious. “I’m ok. I just need a minute” she managed to get out. She looked forward her and noticed something new pinned on to her little pink noticeboard. She leant closer; ignorant now of Judy and her desecrated rancid smelling desk. She pulled the sheet off the noticeboard. Except it wasn’t a note it was the photo from the convent. She slowly turned it over in her shaking hand. Now the plain woman in the picture and the toddler were smiling and a familiar man stood by their side – even in faded black and white she recognised Charlie’s face.
Martine dropped the picture as if it were on fire and fled out of the office. She booked a flight home that afternoon and packed as much as she could carry into her suitcase. She rang a taxi to the airport and tried to numb all thoughts with three glasses of wine in close succession in the airport bar. She never returned to Ireland and it was many months before she even gave another man a chance. She never wrote again – afraid that she might unleash the dark memories which she locked away in a dark crevice of her mind like the women who’d been left to rot in the convent by their families and loved ones.