A Christmas PlaybyStarlight©
Chapter 1: Seen at the Play.
It was at the school Christmas play I first saw her. Quite what it was that drew my attention to her wasn’t clear. She was attractive but no more attractive than a lot of other young mothers present that evening.
She was on the other side of the school drama room from where I was sitting, and I tried to define what it was that made me keep glancing across at her. There was a remoteness, an austere quality combined with an aura of sadness about her. I felt that any attempt to speak to her might meet with a rebuff.
Gina Wallace was sitting next to me and I turned to her and asked, “Who is that woman sitting over there in the red dress?”
Gina looked at me quizzically for a moment, and then grinned. “Fancy her do you, Derek? I wouldn’t go near her if I were you. Don’t you recognise her, that’s Aine Thorogood; her picture was in all the papers three or four years ago.”
The name was familiar but I still could not put it in context.
I gave Gina a questioning look and she went on; “You know, she killed her husband with a kitchen knife. At her trial it was said he was a sadomasochist. Led her a hell of a life so they say. Must have got too much for her so she grabbed the knife and stuck it into him. In the end she got off with manslaughter and received a fairly light sentence. She got out about a month ago after serving a couple of years. Good behaviour I suppose.”
I looked across at Aine Thorogood again, asking, “What’s she doing here?”
“Come to see her son, Jamie I expect. He’s playing Joseph, poor little devil. When she went to jail he was only four and her in-laws took him. I’m told they won’t hand him back now. They are claiming she’s an unfit mother and she should have been given life for murdering their dear son. That’s about all I know.”
I’d heard about Jamie because my daughter, Samantha, was playing Mary, and she had informed me she “wuved” (loved) Jamie because he shared his chocolate with her. I had not made the connection between Jamie and his husband killing mother.
Samantha, or “Sam” as she is generally known, might also be described as a “poor little devil.” Four months before the night of the play Gloria, my wife, had walked out on us. She gave as her reason that she “needed her own space.” Her “own space” proved to be a senior executive in the company she worked for.
One of her colleagues who sympathised with my position told me that the executive had suggested he could advance Gloria’s career if she would, as my informant put it, “Come across.” She duly came across, leaving me to cope with Sam.
Not that Sam was a great burden. She’s a sweet child and much beloved were I am concerned. When Gloria departed the situation remained much the same as it had been from quite soon after her birth, in the sense that little Sam had spent most of her time being looked after by my mother and father, while Gloria and I went to work during the day.
The man that Gloria was now living with had left a wife and three children, but at least she had been a full time mother. I sometimes wondered how she was coping.
Since departing neither Sam nor I had seen anything of Gloria. “So much for a devoted mother,” I often thought, but then, Gloria had not really wanted Sam in the first place. She had been more concerned with her career than child rearing. I suppose I was the one to blame in that I had wanted us to have a child. So, now I had a child, and was trying to be both father and mother to her.
I was still looking across at Aine when she glanced at me. For a few seconds I was riveted by two large dark eyes. From where I was sitting they gave the impression of being black and conveyed a deep sadness. I looked away as Gina nudged me in the ribs and hissed, “It’s starting.”
The lights came up on the little stage, and we began to wade our way through a group of five and six year olds presenting their teacher’s version of the Christmas story. There was much prompting and pushing onto the stage.
The baby Jesus, a doll, got entangled in Joseph’s robe, shepherds dropped crooks and one of the wise men announced he had brought his gift of “Frank’s sense,” and another that he had brought “Ma.” The bringer of gold got it right. At the end we parents clapped heartily as our exultant offspring bowed to us.
As is common on such occasions, the school Principal made a very long and boring speech, praising the children, the teacher, the school and herself, all this while the miniature thespians were still on the stage.
Then it was refreshment time and cuddles for Sam as I told her, “You were wonderful, darling.” Then I had to meet Jamie, her stage husband, because “I wuv him daddy.”
Jamie proved to be a surprisingly mature six year old who shook hands solemnly with me and said, “Nice to meet you, Mr.Sam.” Actually it’s “Mack,” but clearly Sam was the dominant name for him. The boy had the same large, dark eyes as his mother, and the hint of sadness.
While Sam and Jamie plastered their faces with sponge cake, I looked around for Jamie’s mother, but she was nowhere in sight. Eventually a woman approached and said, “We’ve got to go now, Jamie.” She turned out to be the mother of an angel whose wings had wilted during the performance. She had made herself responsible for bringing Jamie and taking him home. She informed me that his grandparents would be coming to see the second performance the following night.
So, while she basked in her fame, I drove a sleepy Sam home as she leaned against me in the car smearing residual sponge cake down the arm of my coat.
“Isn’t Jamie nice, daddy?” She sighed rapturously as I put her to bed. “Very nice, darling, I can see why you ‘wuv’ him.”
“Yes,” she sighed again, as she slipped into the exhausted sleep of a stage star, leaving me to meditate on the innocence of children and the purity of their love.
Chapter 2: On my Mind.
Next day I found the image of Aine Thorogood popping into my mind. I was puzzled why this was so. Since there had been no sexual contact with a woman since Gloria left, and very little for some months before she did leave, my interest might have been put down as sexual attraction. Yet as I have already pointed out, she was no more physically attractive than a lot of other women present at the play, and I knew for certain that one or two of those were willing to satisfy my sexual needs if I had wished.
As a loyal supporter of my actress daughter, I attended the second night of the play. The children, having drawn confidence from the success of their previous performance, now flung themselves into the action with hilarious abandonment. Disaster followed disaster, all of which they carried off with grins at the audience and great aplomb.
I looked around for Aine, but she was not there. After the play and an even longer and more boring speech by the Principal, there was another cake fest. During this I saw Jamie with a couple who looked about sixty years of age.
“That’s Jamie’s grandma and grandpa,” whispered Sam in my ear, “They won’t let him play with anyone.”
Sam might have been exaggerating, but I noted that the couple kept Jamie very close to them, and they seemed to speak to no one else.
Once more I took my little cake encrusted starlet home to be informed again at bedtime that she “Wuved” Jamie, and added, ”I wuv you too, daddy.” Then she said, “Jamie hasn’t got a daddy,” and went to sleep.
“Yes, my darling,” I thought, “and you barely have a mummy.” I choked down the emotion that threatened to bring tears, and gave myself a glass of whisky.
During the days that followed the play Aine Thorogood continued to occupy my mind. I went so far as to go to the public library and look up her story in back numbers of the newspapers.
In so far as the media can be believed, Gina’s information was about correct. The original charge against Aine had been murder, but somehow this got changed to manslaughter.
Her husband, it seemed, had been an up to the minute Marquis de Sade. The witnesses for the prosecution testified to what a lovely little boy he had been, and such a virtuous teenager, never the less he ended up a depraved monster. The testimony of Aine’s doctor told of the physical and emotional damage he had done to her over the five years of their marriage.
The jury found her guilty on the manslaughter charge and added a recommendation for leniency. Even though Gina had said the sentence was lenient, I thought the judge acted rather harshly considering the circumstances, giving her three years imprisonment. She served two years and was then released.
Photographs of her showed the frightened face of a bewildered woman, those large dark eyes of hers filled with apprehension. I know people say, “The law is the law,” but I wondered what earthly good it was putting an ill used and frightened woman into prison. More to the point would have been some loving care. The question that arose I suppose was, who would want to love a husband killer?
There was little about her son Jamie. For once the media had the decency not to try and get its readers wallowing in that combination of self-righteousness and useless sentimentality so dear to them. There was in one newspaper a brief mention that the child would be put in the care of his paternal grandparents.
A further and indignant note in one newspaper announced that Aine had refused a large sum of money to tell her life story. “At least there’s someone left in this world with some wholesomeness.” I thought. “Perhaps not everyone can be bought with money.” Then cynically I thought further, “I wonder what would buy her?” then I felt ashamed of my scepticism.
My only excuse for my cynicism is the bitterness I felt over Gloria who, to distort a quote from the bible, had exchanged Sam and I for a “mess of pottage.” Perhaps I deserved the treatment Gloria had dished out, but not little Sam.
It may have been foolish, but at first I had told Sam that “Mummy has gone away for a while because of her work.” Ironically this was not altogether untrue. But Sam is a bright enough little girl, and after around three weeks of Gloria’s absence she said to me, “Mummy doesn’t want us any more, does she daddy?”
Sam looked at me dry eyed, while I tried to fight back tears and attempt to justify her mother’s absence. When I finished Sam, still staring at me solemn eyed, asked, “You’re not going to leave me, are you daddy?”
I think it would be hard to find something more heart wrenching than that for a father, and hugging her to me, I assured her that I would never leave her. She sat on my lap, pressed against me for a long time, saying nothing. Then as if the matter had never been raised she got off my lap and said, “I’m going to find teddy,” and went off on her search.
When next day I had dropped Sam off at my parent’s house, I told my mother what Sam had said and how she seemed to close the door on the matter, she said, “Derek, she hasn’t closed the door, she’s just buried her pain. You must be very careful with her.” She then added, “And with yourself, darling.”
I work as an engineering draughtsman and I would have willing given up my job to look after Sam, but I had to have money for us to live on. Had it not been for my parents, my plight would have been very difficult indeed.
Chapter 4: An Agnostic Prays.
The play had taken place at the end of the school year so it was Christmas vacation for Sam. She was now in my parent’s care more than ever as I had to leave her to go to work. Aine Thorogood gradually faded from my mind. I had not anticipated seeing her again, so when I did see her, and the place in which I saw her, it was, to say the least, a surprise.
On Christmas Eve my parents always had a gathering of family and friends. It was a cheerful but reasonably quiet occasion, and was concluded by our attendance at the local church for a midnight service of Carols and Nine Lessons.
I was something of an agnostic at the time, and went along to the service partly for my parent’s sake, and partly because the service is quite beautiful and well done. Sam by special dispensation was allowed to stay up late and come with us.
Arriving at the service a few minutes before it was due to start I was idly looking around the congregation when I saw Aine enter the church. As she walked down the aisle seeking a seat, she spotted Sam and stopped by our pew.
“You’re the little girl who played Mary in the school play, aren’t you?” she asked.
“Yes,” replied Sam, no doubt wondering who the lady was.
Aine seemed to hesitate for a moment as if wondering if to say more, then went on, “I’m Jamie’s mother. Can I sit with you?”
“Yes,” replied Sam with some enthusiasm, no doubt delighted to be in the presence of her beloved Jamie’s mother.
“Is Jamie coming too?” Sam asked.
“No, he’s gone to bed,” Aine replied.
Sam sighed her disappointment and taking Sam’s hand I said to Aine, “I’m Sam’s father…er…Samantha that is… Derek Mack.”
Aine paused again, and then said, “Yes, I know. I saw you at the play.”
At that moment the organist gave forth with the opening bars of “Once in Royal David’s City.” The priest, readers and choir entered singing and there was no further talk.
The service begun, I entered into a sort of reverie, contemplating the woman sitting so close to me. A man killer with dark, sad eyes, a mother without her child, and my mind turning to Sam, a child without a mother.
I was jolted back to consciousness of my surroundings. The opening of the service completed, a reader was reading the ancient myth of Adam and Eve, those two of whom it is alleged they brought sin into our world.
What sin? What was the deed done or not done by those two and their tempter the snake? Disobedience? Sex? Murder? Consciousness of being naked? What was that fruit and tree? I had long thought of this story as pure nonsense, but tonight it struck home anew, as if I had never heard it before and it was coming to me afresh.
What was that sin? It was irresponsibility, yes the petty carelessness of everyday, the betrayals and the denial of our accountability. The man betrays the woman: “The woman who you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” The woman betrays the snake: “The serpent beguiled me, and I ate.” Generation after generation, always the same: “It’s not my fault, he, she, it, made me do it.”
Yes, the petty betrayals of everyday life, the lies and deceits that carry within them the violence that bursts out with devastating and murderous force when finally we can no longer bear the burden of what we are and what has been done to us.
The service had moved on into calmer waters as the readers read the ancient promises of a final salvation from our human mire.
The choir and congregation rose to sing the children’s hymn, “Away in a Manger.” Aine had not risen and the hymn begun, I glanced across at her. Sam had fallen asleep lying across Aine’s lap. “My God, I thought, mother and child.”
Aine sat still as a statue and I was distressed to see tears running down her cheeks. What was she seeing in her stillness? What pain was tormenting her? Was it the hymn reminding her of the time she gave birth? The absence of her son, or a little girl, not “asleep in the hay,” but on her lap?
I looked at her profile through my own emerging tears. In her sorrow I saw a beauty I had not observed before. Her mouth shut tightly against the sounds of her weeping – a mouth that in its fullness promised laughter and love. Her slightly aquiline nose and above it a broad forehead surmounted by luxuriant auburn hair. Above all those eyes, not black as they had seemed at a distance, but dark brown and now swimming with tears.
I looked away, unable to bear the sight of her grief and strangely, the sight of Sam cuddled against her. It was all so agonisingly poignant. I was so choked that I was no longer singing, but at the line, “stay by my side until morning is nigh,” I found myself whispering, “stay by her side until morning is nigh.” The agnostic offering his prayer for a woman he did not know, but who was in her grief holding his child.
When the hymn ended the priest called the congregation to prayer. It was a prayer that caught up the needs of people, their sorrows and pains. Again I found myself praying to the doubted God, “Give her love and comfort for she has born much.”
During the next hymn Aine still sat with Sam in her lap and I could see she was struggling to find her handkerchief as she tried not to disturb the child. I got my own unused handkerchief out and passed it to her. She looked up and gave me a wan smile of thanks.
The remainder of the service passed in a blur until at last the organ roared out, “O Come all ye Faithful.” The choir and readers processed out of the church and the priest stood alone to pronounce the benediction. The organ was hurled into a Bach fugue and the congregation began to leave, calling out to each other, “Merry Christmas.”
The three of us sat for a while until most of the congregation had left the church, and then I extended my arms to take Sam. Aine carefully gave Sam to me, passed me back my handkerchief and said, “Thank you,” rose and walked out of the church.
I didn’t want her leave like that, alone and desolate. I tried to catch up with her but encumbered by the still sleeping Sam, I lost sight of her.
My parents were standing chatting with a little group of people, but when my mother saw me she came to me and asked, “Who was that lady holding Sam?” She had been sitting in the pew just behind Aine, and must have seen much of what had passed.
“That’s Aine Thorogood,” I told her.
Mother looked puzzled for a moment, just as I had on first being told the name, then realisation dawned, “That’s the woman who…”
“Yes, that’s the women,” I said quickly, wanting to cut her off before she said those words, “Killed her husband.”
“She looked terribly distressed,” mother said.
“Yes, I wanted to catch up with her when she left at the end of the service, but she was too quick for me.”
Mother stood thinking for a moment, then turned and tapped my father on the shoulder. She whispered something to him and he looked over at me and then nodded to mother.
“She went that way,” mother said. “She was walking, so why don’t you give Sam to dad, and see if you can catch up with her. Invite her to come back to our place for a drink. No one should be on their own Christmas Eve.”
I mentally thanked God for my mother’s compassion – what was I doing thanking God? - and took off at a trot in the direction mother had indicated. I turned the corner of the street and kept going until I reached the next junction.
I looked down each street in turn and could not see her. Thinking there was no point in going further I was about to turn back when in the light of street lamp I saw a flash of white. Aine had been wearing a white linen suit!
I set out at a faster pace and as I drew close I called “Excuse me madam.”
She stopped and turned almost warily, as if expecting something unpleasant to happen.
I came up to her panting and gasped, “My mother said would like you to come and have a drink with us.”
“On, she saw how kind you were to Sam and…”
“We really would like you to,” I said, I hoped persuasively. “If Sam is still awake I’m sure she’d love to be with Jamie’s mother. She says she ‘wuvs’ Jamie.”
“You don’t know who I am. You wouldn’t want me…”
“I know who you are and we do want you to. If your reason for not coming is what is past and not something else you have to do, then please come, I would like you to.”
She stood looking at me for a few moments as if assessing my personal invitation, and then asked, “I won’t spoil things for you?”
“You won’t spoil things for any of us,” I replied.