The author on how her new novel was inspired by an overheard childhood conversation about a woman who died after her living in constant fear of her husband
It began with a story I overheard my mother tell her sister. The two of them were parked by the range, heads close together, mug of tea in hand, arguing over who should eat the last slice of bread. I had been put out to the back garden, told to go and play and not be bothering the adults for a good while, a signal that something seriously worth overhearing was about to go down. I ran round the house and let myself in at the front door, knowing that the sounds of kettle-boiling and scone-slicing would cover any small sound I made.
A woman was dead. The pair of them whispered her name and asked God to let her rest in peace now that she’d been gathered to flower up in His garden. She’d had no peace in life. She’d been married to a bad brute; this was 1970s Northern Irish speak for a violent husband. He was handy with his fists and a fan of spitting words at anyone who couldn’t keep their distance.
The bad brute had always made his wife sit on the linkbox at the back of his tractor; she was never allowed to sit in the cab with him. It had been a freezing night, the kind of night when the wind would nearly take the skin off your face if you were daft enough to be out in it. The drive to their remote farmhouse would have been about 15 miles.
They’d been in town for the cattle mart and the bad brute had had plenty of time to drink most of the profits from her selling one of her calves. She was known to do all the work inside and outside the home. She would have had time to get cold because she was never allowed to sit in the pub with him. On the ride home, her body shut down to the point where she fell off on to the road. This hadn’t killed her. When the bad brute stopped in the yard, he saw that she was missing. She was never allowed to be missing. When he turned back to get her in a blind rage, he ran over her unconscious body by mistake.
He had been drunk enough to make jokes about it with the priest. The silly old fool hadn’t had the sense to roll into the verge. How was he to know that she’d be stupid and selfish even in death? The priest was called before the doctor or the police in Northern Ireland because souls had to be saved in case the body couldn’t be and the police were always last on the list to be called for Catholic fatalities.
He wasn’t charged, of course. It was too small a crime to be bothered with at the height of the Troubles. Nobody had the will to establish whether it was manslaughter or murder or plain old mistreatment. A woman was dead. There was no real shortage of women.
I remember how upset my mother and aunt were. This lady, let’s call her Mary, had been such a sweet girl, then a beautiful woman, then an unfortunate wife. Once you married in 1970s Catholic Ireland, you stayed married. No amount of abuse, physical, mental or emotional, was enough of an excuse to complain, never mind enough to make you run.
There was nowhere to run to anyway. The shame had to be tolerated, so women with black eyes at Mass were ignored, women with split lips were ignored, women with anything worse stayed at home and prayed to their all-seeing God in private. Out of sight, out of mind. Not being assaulted inside a marriage was an accolade. “At least, he doesn’t hit me.” I heard that so often that it took me a good few years in London to understand that it wasn’t exactly the highest benchmark of behaviour. Mary's story was sad but far from unusual. I remember how nervous she was if she ran into my mother in town for just five minutes. She would spend the whole time looking over her shoulder as if there was a devil snapping at her heels. “I can’t stop,” she’d say. “I can’t stop.” As she kept stepping away, back towards her husband who wasn’t keen on her “swapping nonsense” with other women.
The character of the bad brute was well known and no one did a single thing about it because nothing could be done. At that time, wives were property; daughters too. It was this idea of having zero choice that gave me the idea for my new novel, The Saint of Lost Things.
First of all, Lindy Morris has to witness her mother being battered and insulted by her bad brute grandfather; this happens under the eyes of her grandmother. When Lindy finally finds the strength to run, she runs to London. She gets to see another world, one that has other challenges but one where she meets a man who she thinks is kind and decent and gentle. She is so naïve, she has nothing to base her knowledge of men on and she finds out the hard way that he is none of those things.
With no other option, she comes back to the family farm to live out her days as her grandfather sees fit. He banishes her and her aunt to a remote bungalow on the very edge of his land. The remoteness of the house at Carnsore, its mean, narrow build on the edge of a huge evergreen forest, is key. There was no way to get help if you needed it. There he leaves them alone for decades until he sees that they can be of use to him once more.
“A house isn’t a house unless it has a woman in it,” he lies at one stage. The bad brute said something similar at Mary’s wake when he had enough whiskey to fill him up with regret. Everyone tutted but nobody turned away. He was, after all, a recently bereaved husband.
I remembered the story of Mary and how very unjust it was. She had no ability to stand up for herself and she lived every minute of her married life in fear. On the day that I heard the talk of her death, my mother told another story. A neighbour had called down to the farm to borrow a few bales of straw. She was so frightened that she had walked after the neighbour’s tractor, picking the tiniest bits of straw out of the grass and hedges for miles in case the bad brute saw that she had made a decision without his permission. I could see her, gathering in the chaff and holding it tight in her fists to cover her tracks.
In The Saint of Lost Things, the women get to rise up. It takes decades, it takes tragedy, it takes loss and pain but finally, finally they get to draw a line in the sand. It was a delight for me to write, I was glad to put words into their mouths and fire in their bellies. I am always happy to let these silent women from my memory have their say. Times have changed, but they never change out of all recognition. These stories of domestic abuse still take place on an alarmingly regular basis. We should all do our best to listen at the door.
‘The Saint of Lost Things’ by Tish Delaney is published by Hutchinson Heinemann and is out now