About the Author
S.C. Farrow, PO Box 286 Greensborough, Victoria, Australia, 3088
In this work, reference is made to actual people and historical events. However, this is a work of fiction and should not be construed as an historical account.
Faith, Rope & Charity Copyright 2017 S.C. Farrow
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Heartfelt thanks to Jacqui, Judy and Faye.
THURSDAY 15TH FEBRUARY 1951
Four days before the execution
&The pungent odour& of turpentine and beeswax, used to polish the pine wood floor, lingers in every hard-angled corner of the chapel as Sister Agnes kneels in a pool of pale lamplight, in the silence that’s loudest before dawn, with her head bowed, her eyes closed, and her fingers woven tightly together as she whispers to God. ‘I’m lost, Father. I’ve lost my way. I have no idea what I’m doing here. What am I doing here? What is my purpose? Help me, Father. Guide me. Please don’t let me stray.’
At the end of her prayer, Agnes rests her head on her hands and sighs. She didn’t sleep well last night. In fact, she hasn’t slept well for many nights. For the last four months, her sleep has been broken and plagued by nightmares.
There are so many who are lost. So many who need their help. The Community’s resources are stretched to the limit, as is her ability to feel sympathy for those she’s sworn to help. She used to find satisfaction in this honest, down-to-earth work. But now… Now, she’s not so sure.
&The late afternoon& sun beats down on the laundry’s ancient brick walls making them hot to the touch. Inside, the windows in the large stand-alone building are firmly shut and barred. The lime render, not painted since 1921, flakes off the walls.
Steam rises in clouds from the boiling water in the massive coppers and is trapped in the arched ceiling creating an unbearable humidity. The nuns leave the outside doors open, but without a breeze the building is little more than a steam room.
Thirty-seven girls work in the overwhelming heat. Kathleen, the youngest, is barely thirteen-years old. She was sent here because her widowed father decided he could no longer care for her. And with no living relatives to take her in, this was the best he could do for her. Now, she spends her days in the laundry folding sheets and her nights in the crowded dormitory curled up in her cot and sobbing into her pillow.
At twenty-two, Edith is the oldest girl. When she was seven-years old and starving hungry, the corner grocer caught her stealing biscuits when her alcoholic mother neglected to feed her. Now a woman, Edith has the most responsible job in the laundry, ironing altar linen and the parish priest’s surplices.
Other girls stand at the row of sinks that line the far wall scrubbing tablecloths from city restaurants. Some use giant mangles to press sheets for the women’s hospital while the rest soak the sheets and habits that belong to the nuns.
‘We’d better hurry,’ Sister Margaret says, as she uses the long wooden pole to heave a soaking wet sheet from a copper boiler into the nearby laundry trough. ‘It’s almost time for the penitents to go to tea and for us to go to Vespers. You don’t want to miss it again tonight.’
‘I missed it once,’ Agnes sighs, sweating profusely beneath the starched white wimple that covers her head as she cranks the handle on a giant wringer. ‘In fourteen years, I’ve missed it once.’
Suddenly, Reverend Mother appears in the doorway carrying a linen laundry bag. Sister Margaret panics. ‘Reverend Mother… I was just telling Sister Agnes that we’d better hurry if we want to make it in time for Vespers.’
Reverend Mother frowns, exasperated by the woman’s zealousness. ‘There’s plenty of time before you need to be in Chapel, Sister.’
Margaret purses her lips, ‘Yes, Sister, I’m sure there is.’
A short robust woman, fifty-five-year old Reverend Mother has been head of the community since 1918. Mother, father, teacher, confessor, she has guided dozens of wayward young women towards creating a better life for themselves. In return her maternal need, powerful and undeniable, is quietly satisfied. She hands the laundry bag over to Margaret. ‘It’s a donation of women’s clothes. Be sure they’re clean.’
Intolerably hot, Agnes rolls up the sleeves of her habit as Margaret sets the bag on a nearby table, and plucks out a woman’s frock. The pastel colours, stark against the drab colour of the laundry, catch Agnes’s eye as Margaret holds it up by the oversized shoulder pads to inspect it.
It’s an afternoon dress. A petite size. Made of polished cotton the floral pattern is light and summery. The calf-length skirt drapes over a pink taffeta petticoat. The short green sleeves are turned back to reveal pink lining and a pink belt hangs in loops around the pinched waist.
‘Oh, my goodness,’ Agnes says, reaching out to feel the fabric.
Despite some signs of wear and tear, some dull spots around the armpits, some mending around the waistline and hem, the quality of the fabric and the stitching is unmistakable. It’s an expensive dress, designer, and from the faint odour of jasmine perfume caught between the warp and weft threads, it seems it was much loved by its owner.
Agnes tears her eyes away from the dress to look at her Mother Superior. ‘Yes, Sister.’
‘As you know, Sister Ruth is unwell. I need someone else to take her place on care visit tomorrow.’
Agnes hesitates to respond. She wants to help, she truly does, but she doesn’t know that she’s got it in her. She doesn’t know that she can find the compassion.
Reverend Mother frowns as she waits, senses the hesitation.
But a moment later, Agnes relents. ‘Of course, Sister. Who will I be visiting?’
‘Jean Lee. Her appeal to the Privy Council has been refused. The Premier has announced she’ll go to the gallows on Monday.’
‘I hope I can count on you.’
‘Yes, of course.’
Reverend Mother gives Agnes a small nod and then turns and leaves the laundry.
Sister Margaret shoves the dress back in the laundry bag and hands it off to Edith. ‘You heard Reverend Mother.’ As Edith walks away, Margaret grips the wooden pole and turns her attention back to the copper and the hospital sheets perking in the boiling water. ‘What’s the world coming to when they can hang a woman?’
When they can hang a woman[, _]Agnes thinks.[ ]Hang a woman… Who murdered an old man.[ _]The thought tumbles over and over in her mind. What does she tell this woman? What does she say to her? How does she find the right words?
She goes back to wringing the sheet.
How does she find the words?
FRIDAY 16TH FEBRUARY 1951
Three days before the execution
&Heat ripples& above the tar on the road as the tangerine sun arcs across the mid-morning sky. Already oppressive, the heat of the day forces the acrid smell of blood and bone to permeate through the cab of the 1943 Chevrolet tray truck.
In the passenger seat, Agnes clutches the carpet bag in her lap as she almost gags on the smell. ‘Do you mind if I roll down the window?’ she asks Albert Gordon as they rumble along Nepean Highway towards the city.
‘Go ahead,’ Gordon says, keeping his eyes firmly on the road. A man of few words, he applied for the position of groundskeeper at the Community of the Holy Name after his beloved wife Sarah died of lung cancer in 1945, just three years after their only son Lionel was killed at El Alamein. Now, he lives in a cottage on the convent grounds, works seven days a week, and drinks his way through the long lonely nights without his family.
The rest of the journey is travelled in silence until they reach Coburg when Gordon makes a right hand turn from Sydney Road into Urquhart Street.
Agnes frowns as she looks at him. ‘The main entrance is on Champ Street.’
‘They moved her,’ the old man replies.
The truck rumbles along the narrow road until they reach the south gate, a segmental-arched opening set within the wall and mounted with a cornice. Beneath the arch are two doors that can open wide enough to admit a heavily guarded truck.
‘This is it,’ Gordon says, pulling the Chevy to a stop.
Agnes rolls the window all the way down and waits as he climbs out of the cab to inform the guards she’s here to visit one of the prisoners. She peers at the gate and the massive bluestone wall. Made from blocks cut from one of Coburg’s own bluestone quarries, it’s at least twenty feet tall and surrounds the entire prison complex.
The wall… Agnes can’t help but think about the purpose of it. It’s the same as the wall that surrounds the convent⎯to keep the inmates in and the rest of the world out.
Lost in thought, she’s startled when she realises Gordon is standing beside the passenger door. He turns the handle and yanks it open. ‘I’ll be back to collect you at three,’ he says, holding out his hand to help her out of the cabin.
Agnes clutches the carpet bag as she takes his hand and slides out of the front seat. As Gordon walks back to the driver’s side of the truck, Agnes stares at the gate.
How do I do this? How do I find the words? Dear God, let me find the words.
Then she holds her breath and steps into the world on the other side.
&Perspiration beads& on Agnes’s forehead as she waits alone in the small reception room. Heat from summer’s endless days, settles in the bluestone blocks that are coated with cream coloured paint. Suddenly, a female guard enters the room. She eyes the nun up and down, assesses her carefully before speaking.
‘My name’s Smith,’ she announces. ‘As soon as you sign in I’ll escort you to see the prisoner.’
The ‘prisoner’. She too has been stripped of her name.
Guard Smith eyes the bag in her hand. ‘May I ask what’s in the bag?’
‘Clothes,’ Agnes replies. ‘I was told she could wear her own clothes.’
‘Yes, but I will need to search it before taking you onto the block.’
Agnes nods. ‘Of course.’
Agnes signs the visitor register while Guard Smith searches the carpet bag. She inspects each item thoroughly then stacks them in an untidy pile beside her. The final item is the floral afternoon dress. She holds it up, casts an eye over it, then proceeds to remove the pink belt hanging in the loops around the waist.
‘Is that necessary?’ Agnes asks.
‘Don’t forget to sign the register.’
Finally satisfied that Agnes isn’t secreting weapons or anything dangerous into the prison, Guard Smith unlocks yet another gate and leads the way onto the block.
The clank of the gate slamming shut behind them echoes in the cavernous space in front of them. Agnes looks around. Light struggles to illuminate the building that opens out in front of them, but Agnes can see that everything, steel and stone, is painted with the same cream coloured paint that was used in the reception room.
‘This way,’ Smith says, leading the way down the wide corridor.
The silence is unsettling as they pass a dozen recessed wooden doors, a prison cell hidden away behind each one. And the heat. It hangs in corners under the stairs and the arch of the roof that towers above them. There’s no escaping it.
Then something up high catches Agnes’s eye. She gasps when she looks up to see a massive wooden beam spanning the width of the upper level. Agnes realises this is the beam that was brought from Melbourne Goal when it closed in the 1920s. This is the beam that hanged Ned Kelly. And Elizabeth Scott, Agnes Murray, and Martha Needle. Suddenly, the muffled sound of coughing startles her. Agnes tears her eyes away from the beam and looks at a nearby cell door. She hadn’t thought… There are people in these cells. People. Prisoners.
‘This is it.’ Smith says, pointing through the dim light to a cell a few feet away.
The door of this cell is nothing like the others. This one has a door made of iron bars. It’s an observation cell where prisoners are kept under constant supervision. Fingers gripping the handles of her bag, Agnes peers inside.
In the frail light that creeps in through the lone window set high up in the wall, Agnes can see her sitting on the edge of the cot, a cigarette burning between her bony fingers as she watches a cockroach scuttling across the floor in front of her feet. Lost in thought, she has no idea that Agnes is watching her until she scoops up the insect and carries it toward the bars that cut her off from the rest of the world.
‘Step away from the door, Lee,’ Smith commands. ‘You’ve got a visitor.’
Jean stops in her tracks and looks up. The look she shares with Smith is one of mutual contempt. Agnes can see they’re about the same age, but Jean looks old, worn, crinkled at the edges. Dressed in shapeless prison garb that’s been worn by umpteen women before her, she’s small, petite, and wretchedly thin. Her thick red hair, scruffy and unkempt, hangs about her shoulders in clumps, and she’s got a fresh pink scar across the bridge of her nose. However, as haggard as she is, Agnes detects remnants of a physical beauty, long since faded, in the sensual arch of her eyebrow, the curve of her chin, and the slight downturn of her pale green eyes.
Jean grips the bar as she crouches down and releases the insect. Agnes frowns as she watches, disturbed by the tremor in Jean’s slender hand. She’s seen that kind of shake before. Involuntary. Irrepressible. It’s the tell-tale sign of an addiction that lingers still. She watches the roach as it scuttles away beneath the barred door⎯until Smith crushes it beneath the heel of her boot. The corner of Smith’s mouth curls into a smile as Jean gets up. Jean knows better than to start trouble. She drags on her cigarette as she backs away.
Smith’s keys rattle in the lock as she opens the gate. ‘This is Sister Agnes,’ she announces. ‘She’s from the Community of the Holy Name.’
Jean takes a seat at the small wooden table in the corner as Agnes steps inside the cell.
‘Call out if you need anything,’ Smith says, locks the door once more. ‘I won’t be far away.’
Agnes takes a deep breath and approaches the table. ‘I hope you don’t mind,’ she says, placing the bag on the table. ‘I brought you some fresh clothes.’
‘You came all the way from Cheltenham to bring me a nice dress to die in? You’re crazier than I am.’
Agnes ignores the comment. Jean moves a letter she’s writing and the photograph tucked underneath it allowing Agnes to place the bag on the table. As Jean rifles through the clothes, Agnes looks around the cell. Surprisingly large, it’s actually two rooms, one for the prisoner and one for the overseer. There’s a kapok mattress on the single bed frame, two blankets, and a lumpy pillow. There’s a lidless toilet in the opposite corner, and a hand basin on the wall. There’s no privacy at all.
With her cigarette dangling between her lips, Jean holds up the floral dress to the afternoon light.
‘It had a belt…’ Agnes begins to explain.
‘But the screws took in case I got ideas about necking myself with it.’
Agnes doesn’t answer but the hypocrisy of taking a belt from a woman who might use it to hang herself isn’t lost on either of them.
Jean tosses the dress on top of the bag. ‘It’s a little too high-brow for me. A little too ‘goody two-shoes’.
‘Clothes are an advertisement of yourself, of the way you value yourself. Your modesty. Or your availability. If you value yourself, your clothes will reflect that.’
‘When was the last time you wore a dress? A real dress? A pretty dress?’
Agnes lowers her eyes as she hesitates, as she thinks back.
‘Well?’ Jean demands.
Agnes looks her straight in the eye. ‘I was seventeen.’
Jean stubs out her cigarette, senses there’s a whole lot more to the story. ‘And…’
‘May I sit down?’
Jean gestures to her cot.
Agnes sits carefully on the edge of the bed. ‘I see you’re writing a letter.’
Jean snatches up her pack of cigarettes and lights another one. ‘You’re not going to push me for some kind of confession, are ya?’
‘I’m not here to judge you, Miss Lee. The law has already done that. As has the public. I think enough decisions have been made about your quality.’
Jean scoffs. ‘My quality? I don’t give a fuck what people think about [_my quality. _]It’s none of their fucking business.’
‘It is when you commit murder.’
Thwack! Jean slams a balled up fist on the table. ‘I’m not a murderer, all right!’ she cries. ‘I’m not!’
Agnes gasps, startled by the outburst.
Then as quickly as her fury flared, Jean calms down and sits back in her chair. ‘I didn’t kill him,’ she says. ‘I was there when it happened, I admit that. But I didn’t kill him.’
‘The law says that allowing it to happen makes you just a guilty.’
Jean drags on her cigarette as she sits back in her chair, her cold blue eyes scrutinising Agnes, analysing her, classifying and compartmentalising her. ‘Yeah, well, the way I see it, it was him or me.’
‘What do you mean, it was him or you?’
‘I didn’t give a shit about the old man’s money. I just wanted to get out of there, but Bobby… It was driving him crazy that he couldn’t find the wad of cash the old man bragged about.’
‘Bobby Clayton’s your boyfriend, isn’t he? You confessed in order to save him.’
Jean looks away, clearly uncomfortable with this turn in the conversation.
‘Why?’ Agnes continues. ‘Why help a man who beat you and sold you to others? A man who was happy to let you take the blame?’
Smoke curls from the corners of Jean’s downturned mouth.
‘Mr Kent didn’t have a wad of cash, did he?’
Jean shakes her head. ‘No, he didn’t.’ A moment later, she reaches for the photograph tucked behind the letter and hands it to Agnes.
Agnes takes it and turns it to the light. It’s a black and white image of a pretty little girl. ‘Who is this?’ she says.
‘My daughter,’ Jean replies. ‘She was seven when that was taken. I haven’t seen her for a while.’
‘What’s her name?’
‘She’s beautiful.’ Agnes holds onto the picture as she thinks back. ‘My son…’ she says. ‘He’d be twelve now.’
Jean huffs. ‘You… Have a son?’
Agnes nods. ‘Yes.’
Jean smiles. ‘Bit unusual for a nun, isn’t it?’
Agnes nods as her mind jolts back in time to that day, to the moment she threw caution to the wind and gave in to urges, primal and ill-considered, that damned her body and soul. She’d seen him around the neighbourhood. He’d seen her, too. The way he looked at her… It stirred things in her, secret, indecent things.
One evening after her shift at the dress factory, she climbed down off the bus and began the short walk towards home. As she approached the dairy on the corner of her street she saw him. Her heart fluttered in her chest. She quickly looked away, but she knew he was looking at her, that he was peering at her from beneath the thick black curls that hung loose and wild over his dark brown eyes. He wasn’t like the other boys she knew. The long sleeves of his shirt were rolled up past his elbows and he always had a cigarette dangling from his full lips. There was something mysterious about him, something dangerously attractive. She kept her eyes down and was determined to ignore him and walk right past him without so much as a smile. But, as the space between them grew ever shorter her curiosity betrayed her and she glanced up at him. He was looking at her too. She knew she should keep going, keep walking until she was safe behind the front door of her family’s brand new Commission house. But she didn’t. She stopped and held her breath as she dared to snatch a look back over her shoulder. She was surprised to see that he had stopped too and that he was looking back at her. Her breath quickened as he took a step towards her. He took her hand and held it tight as he led her into the narrow lane at the side of the dairy. The stench of hay and horse shit crawled into her nostrils as she stood in the shadows of the overhanging branches and kissed him. She didn’t even know his name.
‘What happened to him?’
Jean’s question yanks Agnes back into the here and now. And she very much needs to change the subject. ‘Miss Lee…’
Jean’s voice hardens. ‘What happened to your boy?’
‘I gave him up for adoption.’
Jean frowns as she stares at the holy woman.
‘I wouldn’t have been a very good mother,’ Agnes says. ‘It was for the best.’
Jean nods. ‘My parents adopted Jillian.’
‘Then you know she’s loved.’
‘Yeah,’ Jean says. ‘I guess I so. So, why are you a nun?’
‘I think I’ve said enough.’
‘I don’t think so.’
Agnes hesitates. She’s revealed more than enough to this woman. However, it feels good to talk. To share the truth. No matter how ugly it is. ‘I’m a nun because I was alone. Because I wanted someone to love me. Despite my mistakes.’
‘The nuns loved you?’
‘No, they didn’t. But God did. Or at least I thought He did.’
‘You don’t think that anymore?’
‘You took wows?’
‘Yes. Of obedience. Poverty. And chastity.’
‘Chastity?’ Jean scoffs. ‘How’s that working out for you?’
Agnes frowns, suddenly furious. Who is this woman to speak to her in such a way? And how is it that she knows her thoughts? And those feelings buried deep inside her heart?
Jean sits back and looks Agnes in the eye. ‘I did it ‘cause I loved him. I thought he was going to love me. Forever and all that shit.’
Agnes nods. She knows what Jean means.
SATURDAY 17TH FEBRUARY 1951
Two days before the execution
&Agnes rolls& her neck as she stands beneath the shower of warm water soothing her aching muscles. The laundry was busy today and she worked extra hard. But now she has to hurry if she’s going to make it in time for Vespers. She doesn’t want to give Sister Margaret another reason to be upset with her.
She turns off the taps and steps out of the shower stall. As she reaches for her towel, she catches sight of herself in the small vanity mirror. She wipes away the water that drips from her short dark hair onto her shoulders and breasts. Then she wipes it from her belly and the stretch marks that remain as a constant reminder of her wayward past.
Suddenly, thud thud thud, pounding on the bathroom door. ‘Sister Agnes,’ Margaret calls. ‘It’s time to go.’
Agnes’s shoulders slump. ‘I’ll be right out.’
SUNDAY 18TH FEBRUARY 1951
One day before the execution
&Agnes is& on her knees with head bowed, her eyes closed, and her fingers woven tightly together in prayer as dawn light seeps through the stained glass window. She whispers to God, prays and prays for Jean’s release from torment. She prays for her own.
MONDAY 19TH FEBRUARY 1951
The day of the execution
&Swollen drops& of rain splatter on the windscreen as the truck rumbles along Urquhart Street. It’s the first time it’s rained in days.
Albert Gordon flicks on the windscreen wipers. Agnes looks up as they scrape across the grimy glass, and gasps. Despite the fact that it’s seven a.m. Monday morning, a substantial crowd has gathered on the road outside the south gate. The crowd, mostly men, are divided into two separate groups, one on each side of the gate. The group on the right waves placards as they chant ‘Reprieve! Reprieve! Reprieve!’ The group on the right also waves placards but they chant ‘Eye for an eye! Eye for an eye! Eye for an eye!’ In between them, a half dozen men in suits and hats band together to talk amongst themselves. Two of them have large bags slung over their shoulders.
‘Who are they?’ Agnes says, as she watches them with concern.
‘They’re reporters,’ Gordon says. ‘From the newspapers.’
In a hurry to get inside, Agnes reaches for the door handle.
‘Wait,’ Gordon warns. ‘I’ll go in with you.’
Agnes sits back and looks at the fervid crowd.
&Guard Smith guides& Agnes along the upstairs walkway.
‘Miss Lee’s cell is downstairs,’ Agnes says.
‘She’s been moved to a cell by the gal… She’s been moved to a cell on this level.’
As they walk further along the walkway, Agnes glances down at the lower level and spots the prison’s governor glancing at his watch as he smiles and jokes with several men in suits and three D Division guards. Clenching her jaw and gritting her teeth, Agnes looks up again only to see the hanging beam stretching across the void right in front of her. Unlike her last visit, the beam now sports a noose that dangles freely above the trapdoor cut into the metal floor.
‘She’s in here,’ Smith says, pointing to cell 67A. ‘The doctor’s with her.’
Agnes stops, uncertain if she can do this, unsure if she can go inside. ‘What do I tell her?’ Agnes asks. ‘How do I find the words?’
Unusually sympathetic, Smith considers her reply. ‘I’m not a religious woman, but if I were, I’d think that God sent you because you’re the one she needs right now and that He’ll give you whatever words you need.’
Agnes nods, grateful for the woman’s reply. Then she rounds the corner into the cell.
Jean, wearing the floral dress, is sitting on her cot. Her head hangs forward as the doctor, who sits on a chair in front of her, unties the tourniquet from around her arm.
Agnes watches as he presses two fingers to Jean’s neck feeling her pulse. Satisfied he’s done all he can for her, he gives her hand a plaintive squeeze, then grabs his medical bag and heads for the door, nodding to Agnes as he leaves.
Agnes takes a seat on the chair. Tears well in her eyes at the sight of Jean in the pretty floral dress. It’s too big for her rail-thin frame, but a hint of her former beauty, unbearably faint, shines through despite the despair. Jean looks at the items on the bed beside her, an empty packet of cigarettes, the photograph of her daughter, and a hairbrush.
Spittle dribbles from Jean’s lips as she looks up. ‘I didn’t think you’d come.’
Agnes smiles. ‘You look beautiful.’
Jean smiles too. ‘I do, don’t I?’ Then the smile slips from her lips as she points to a rubber undergarment lying on the bed beside her. ‘They want me to wear that. But I don’t think it’ll go with the dress.’
Agnes frowns as she closes her eyes and hangs her head. Please God, let me find the words.
Jean lists sideways as she reaches under her pillow. She pulls out the letter to her daughter and hands it to Agnes. ‘I didn’t trust the screws to send it.’
Agnes takes it. ‘Would you like me to brush your hair?’
Jean closes her eyes and whispers, ‘Yes.’
Agnes picks up the hairbrush and gently untangles the knots from Jean’s thick red hair. With each stroke of the brush, Jean slips into a world that is far beyond the here and now.
A moment later, Guard Smith enters and breaks the carefree silence. ‘Sister…’
Agnes ignores her and keeps brushing.
‘Sister, I’m sorry but it’s time.’
The sound of clanking against the cell door’s bars forces Agnes to look up. She gasps when she sees the hangman standing in the doorway in a knee-length white coat, a white felt hat pulled down over his forehead, and massive steel-rimmed goggles covering his eyes.
Suddenly, Jean’s head flops forward, her body goes limp and she slumps, unconscious, into Agnes’s lap.
Outside the prison, the protestors’ chanting reaches fever pitch. Gordon stands on the street, leaning against the body of his truck when he checks his watch. It’s 7.55 a.m.
Inside, Jean sits in a chair, the floral dress draping neatly over her knees. Her eyes are closed, her mouth is slack, and her hands are tied behind her back as the hangman’s assistant slips a hood over her freshly-brushed hair. The chair sits on the gallows trapdoor.
An unnatural silence has fallen over the world inside these walls. It’s as though the ghastly reality of the situation has only just dawned on those who stand present. Now on the ground floor, Agnes stands amongst them, the guards, the men in suits, and the newspaper men who have come to bear witness to Jean’s demise. Her fingers are woven tightly together in prayer, so tightly they are white from lack of blood flow. Have mercy on her, Lord. Take her into your arms and have mercy on her soul. The hangman slips the noose over Jean’s head and tightens the knot at the side of her neck just below her jaw. The hangman’s assistant pulls down the flap to cover her face. The hangman stands ready, his hand on the lever, watching the clock above him. The minute hand ticks around to eight a.m. and without a hint of hesitation, he triggers the trapdoor.
Outside the south gate, Gordon looks up to see startled pigeons take flight.
Agnes stands still, frozen to the spot, unable to move, afraid to look.
Dear God, take care of her.
THURSDAY 1ST MARCH 1951
Ten days after the execution
&A tangerine sun& arcs across the southern New South Wales sky. Classic music plays on the wireless as Charles Wright sits on the porch reading the morning newspaper. Florence Wright rocks in her chair as she watches her granddaughter playing in the water spraying from the lawn sprinkler. No one pays any attention to the cab that passes the house until it stops and backs up.
The driver waits patiently as Agnes, wearing a pretty white dress with a pink floral pattern, snaps open her purse and glances at the two letters placed carefully inside. One is from the Children’s Welfare Department which contains information about her son. The other is Jean’s letter to Jillian.
‘Who is it, Charlie?’ Florence wonders.
Charles peers over the top of his paper. ‘I’ve never seen her before.’
Agnes pays the cab driver and shuts her purse. Then she takes a deep breath, climbs out of the back seat, and crosses the street.
Amongst other things, S. C. Farrow has been a lampshade maker, a fashion designer, a vocalist, and a corporate automaton. However, most importantly, she is, and always has been, a writer of poetry, song lyrics, short stories, novels, and screenplays.
Sister Agnes used to be sure of her commitment to God. She used to be sure of her role in the community. However, lately she's been questioning her life behind the convent's walls. Across town, in Melbourne's Pentridge Prison, the murderess Jean Lee awaits the date of her execution. When Agnes is charged with visiting Jean in the days before she goes to the gallows, she doesn't know if she has what it takes to comfort a condemned woman. How on earth will she find the words?