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The Vacuum - Issue 16 - Satan spacer The Vacuum - Issue 16 - Satan
Just a Devil Woman
by John Morrow
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In the ghetto of my childhood, an ecumenical triangle bounded by road, river and gasworks (long since bulldozed, luxuriously redeveloped, but no longer ecumenical), in that haven for refugees from earlier 'ethnic cleansing' in the city the Dark Powers were made flesh in the person of a woman called Aggie Breen.
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She lived in a terrace house on the river side, a dark cave with spud bags for curtains, her only companion an old diseased dog called Scamp.
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In appearance Aggie resembled, to my terrified child's eye, a huge black hen. Her thin bare shanks emerged from men's hobnailed boots; her enormous jutting bum was draped in a long skirt of what looked like dyed hessian; her narrow upperworks were wrapped tightly in a ratty shawl and her small head covered with a black beret pulled down over her ears.
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Her face I cannot describe because I never saw it, having been warned that she had the Evil Eye and if confronted by her and Scamp on their daily perambulations I was to run to the other side of the street, look straight ahead and spit three times when they had passed (if I didn't I would be dead by morning).
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It was my big cousin Sadie who told me that Aggie had a long pointy nose, like Keyhole Kate in the comics, tiny red eyes and brown teeth (she openly smoked Old Crowbar plug in a clay pipe, as did in secret many older women then, especially those reared in the country: my own maternal granny's cache of pipe, plug and penknife was found hidden up the chimney hood above the kitchen range after her death, aged 89).
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How Sadie came to see her face was because Aggie was a fortune-teller, a reader of tea leaves, and Sadie a regular among the giggle of stitchers and mill girls who braved the dirt and stink of Aggie's hovel on pay-nights, clutching ready-used cups from the dregs of which Aggie would reveal their bright futures at thrupence a head.
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At work, Sadie said, Aggie's voice was deep and wheezy, almost like a man's. At other times the only sound heard from her was a high-pitched screech, whether cursing children, calling Scamp, or occasionally, when drunk on Red Biddy, performing in the small hours, when she would curse the entire neighbourhood.... 'Oh, I know yis're all there with yer lugs cocked, nice, God-fearin' folk that you are....But I'm the one that knows the other side of yis low, dirty, two faced gather-ups....'
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By day the mere sight of a tin-rattling nun or the C of I curate 'doing his rounds' could provoke a torrent of blasphemous abuse and even an attack by Scamp - 'Seize him, boy!' (but Scamp, long past it, would totter a few steps, sit down and howl). Worse was when gospel groups came of an evening to gather round a lamppost, sing hymns and give their 'testimonies' (pimply youths waving Bibles and confessing their sins - all, that is bar the one that caused the pimples). For these Aggie reserved the most strident of her ire, sometimes accompanying the singer with scurrilous parodies.
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I don't care if it snows or freezes, I am safe in the arms of Jesus. I am Jesus's little lamb, Yes by Jesus Christ I am!
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Or the old soldier's one that I loved, God help me: 'Wash me in the water That you washed your dirty daughter in And I will be whiter than the whitewash on the wall'.
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As I grew older I began to wonder why people put up with Aggie and her anti-religous outbursts. Having experienced the bloody upheavals of the last decade, now living cheek by jowl in reasonable amity, both sides were generally careful about giving offence. Thus 15th of August bonfires were plied on the black spoor left from the 11th of July; the local Orange Lodge conducted its annual ceremony of 'lifting the banner' from the Master's House and parading it around the district; my mother and my aunt, both dressmakers, made the white frocks for little Catholic girls on their first communion - and attended the service in St. Malachy's as did many other heretics. Yet nobody said a word when Aggie harassed the nuns or mocked the gospel singers.
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The reason why, I concluded then, was because of the essential things Aggie could do, besides reading teacups. She had 'The Charm' for warts and ringworm; she made a secret mix of turpentine and vinegar that was deadly for head nits, obviating municipal shearing; she could 'bottle' a boil and, it was rumoured, painlessly lick the cataracts from elderly eyes. On top of these medical skills she could bite the surplus off a terrier pup's tail or drown an unwanted litter of kittens.
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Yet none of these, or all combined, carried either the prestige or the profit of Aggie's premier skill.... She was, as I once overheard my aunt remark to my mother, though I hadn't understood at the time, 'a dab hand at the warm gin and buttonhook'. An abortionist.
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In those days there was one in every quarter, with the lifelong stigma of bastardy on both mother and child being what it was, there was work aplenty for all. (When something the tea leaves had not foretold happened to Sadie in 1936, she took her custom to the Ballynafiegh Aggie, hoping to foil the local gossip network. A vain hope.)
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In 1937 the dole was cut, coal went up tuppence a bag and the plain loaf by a ha'penny. The end of a wet summer brought an epidemic of 'flu - nothing like 1919, but it had the old ones dropping like flies. An early victim, surprisingly, was Aggie Breen.
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Scamp had been howling in the yard for most of the day before a neighbour woman, getting no response to a session of door banging and shouting, summoned help. A young fellow climbed over the yard wall, was severely gummed by Scamp in the process, but managed to gain entrance and open the front door. The neighbour found Aggie in bed, fully clothed, comatose and boiling with fever. She immediately sent for the district nurse who lived close by. When she came, this lady took one look at Aggie and, recalling that she'd seen Doctor Scarlett's car a few street away, sent the climbing lad running to try and catch him. Which he did.
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Doc. Scarlett was a hard man. As a student at Queen's he had held the Irish Universities' welterweight title for three years and had put jam on his piece by weekend prizefighting in the Chapel Fields. At sixty he was still the possessor of the most effective and discreet right uppercuts in the profession, essential when dealing with drunks, lunatics or hysterical women.
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It was late and the Doc. was tired, so he wasn't too pleased at being summoned by a woman he considered to be an inept gossip. Those in the claque of neighbours which had formed around Aggie's door said that he charged out of the car like a bull at a gate. Half an hour later he emerged, shouting back up the hall to the nurse, telling her to stay put until the ambulance arrived. They could hear her inside, protesting tearfully, but he slammed the door and pushed his way to the car, looking, some said like he'd seen a ghost. Once behind the wheel he was seen to raise a hip flask to his lips and drink deeply.
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The ambulance arrived and a prone Aggie was stretchered out with difficulty, not least because the crowd outside had grown apace as word spread. (Scamp howled mournfully the whole of the next night, and disappeared).
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The sight of the nurse too being assisted into the ambulance, tear stained and obviously in a state, was enough to set the rumour mills grinding... On removing Aggie's clothes, it was said, they had found that her skin was scaled like a dragon's.....they'd discovered the mark of horns under her beret and a vestigial tail with a pointy end at the bottom of her spine.....
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The nurse recovered quickly and immediately broadcast the truth to all who would listen: a tail, yes; but on belly not bum; and with appendages.....
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Aggie Breen was a man!
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His name was Simon Cope. he was born and reared in Newry. He joined the Army Medical Corps at the outbreak of the '14\'18 war and served as an orderly in front-line dressing stations until badly gassed during a German attack in 1917. Sent back to England to recuperate, he had disappeared and was still posted as a deserter. His family heard nothing from him; his parents in Newry had since died and his only brother had emigrated to Australia.
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All this the ghetto heard from District Nurse Blabbermouth, who was determined to milk the last drop of the drama despite threats of Grievous Bodily Harm from Doc. Scarlett. She was at Aggie/Simon's bedside in the Workhouse wing of the City Hospital on the night before he died. In her version he emerged briefly from his coma and, fixing her with staring red eyes, said: ' I was only wanting to spare them'.
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And she, silly old thing, thought he meant his family.
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