Authors: Francesca Kay
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Literary, #Religious
Mary-Margaret went meekly. There was no one in the sacristy. She filled the kettle at the sink. Above the sink was a wooden panel with a row of key hooks, each one labeled in Father Diamond’s meticulous handwriting. Fuse box. Garage. Sacristy. Organ. Shed. There were two sets of keys on the sacristy hook. Mary-Margaret took one and put it in the pocket of her fleece.
Stella stroked a velvet bud. Most of the buds had already opened to release their star-shaped flowers; the tree was heavy with them, and their fleeting scent.
Rufus had given it to her as a sapling when they bought this house. Wherever we live we’ll have one, he had said; this plant that has your name. Other flowers were beginning to hatch in the fresh sunlight: primroses, anemones, the early clematis. Tomorrow her son Barnaby would come back from his field trip; in exactly one week’s time it would be Felix’s end of term. Why had she consented to send Felix to boarding school? She thought of Mrs. Armitage; her son in such danger, and so far away.
Would her sense of being incomplete without her children lessen when all three were fully grown? People had told her she was fortunate, when Felix went away. It’s like a second honeymoon, a friend had said. You fall in love with your husband all over again when you have more time to spend with him, time alone together.
A robin sang a scolding song from his sentry post in a trailing branch of ivy. Stella laughed. Are you telling me it’s time I went inside and left you in peace to feed the brood? she asked the bird. You’re right. She rubbed a strand of rosemary between her fingers for the scent of it on her way in. Cock Robin, with a nest of gaping beaks. The memory came to her of babies at the breast, their tiny, frantic mouths when newly born and panicking lest they be left to starve. It took weeks until they found the confidence to wait even for a minute in the expectation that, having been fed before, they were likely to be fed again. Before that the
least delay caused them to cry as if their hearts would break and break again in the lonely desolation of their hunger.
Later, when they were a few months old, the babies learned the pleasures of anticipation and of gratified demand. Each, though, kept their individual style. Barnaby was leisurely, would break off to have a look around, to pat the obliging breast with his small paw, would twinkle up at Stella in mid-gulp as if he shared a wordless joke. Felix dedicated more care to the process. Women in the main tend to stay silent on the pleasure of the slow letdown, the soft pink gums, the sense of power and purpose as the sated infant falls asleep all of a sudden at the breast.
In the kitchen, Stella looked at her watch and saw with a jolt that her guests would be arriving in two hours. She was giving a supper party, one of a series, to be held each Thursday during this parliamentary session. It was a scheme of Rufus’s. He wanted to create a contemporary model of the “At Homes” of the thirties, when society hostesses gathered thinkers and politicians in their drawing rooms, creating a stage on which the brilliant could shine and afterward record their bons mots in their diaries. Realizing that no one nowadays would know how to respond to an At Home invitation or rise to the occasion of a salon, Rufus had decided that the modern equivalent was the kitchen supper. Every week he and Stella would invite a mixture of old friends, the more attractive neighbors, political colleagues, journalists and anyone else who had influence, was likely to be flattered, and would respond to Rufus. Kitchen sups, he told them all. Spag bol. No need for your best bib and tucker.
This evening Stella was cooking a fish stew. She had already pared the peel from an orange and left it to dry
slowly on the Aga. Now she began to work out the time it would take to complete her preparations. She should have begun them earlier; she would have to rush, there was no time left to wash her hair.
She shook mussels from the bowl in which they had been resting into a basinful of water. They imparted a faint breath of the sea. Some clamped their shells more tightly shut when they felt the impact, one or two gave up the ghost and sagged forlornly open. Stella remembered Felix’s mingled horror and amazement when he discovered mussels were alive. Alive even when you cook them? he had asked. Well, yes, but only for a minute or two, she’d said. That’s so mean; you ought to kill them properly first. That night she had found a mussel sequestered in a mug of water by his bed. She knew that Felix would have given it a name.
Such beautiful things, she thought, these mussels. Their sleek shells gleaming in the water, pearl-tinged at the hinges, a darkness that was full of color—green and gray and bronze. It was their ordinariness that put them beyond remark. As with many other things—the iridescent feathers on a drake’s neck in the winter, so startling a green; the buds of a magnolia; the high polish of a newly released conker—the mussels were too familiar to be a real cause of wonder. We look out for the rare and the exotic. The magnificence of a peacock’s tail, the flash of diamonds in a seam of coal. And yet what could be more exotic than a cock pheasant in a field of frozen turnips on a winter morning, his ruby markings and his emerald green head?
Beautiful though they might be, it was hard work to clean these mussels. She scraped away their cargo of barnacles,
her fingers cold and swollen. There was still squid to clean, fennel to chop, and garlic. She must lay the table, fetch ironed napkins from the linen cupboard, find fresh candles, make aioli, and whip cream for the apple tart.
Rufus got home just before the guests arrived at eight o’clock. Did you put the Prosecco in the fridge? he asked. Good girl. I’ll go and shave.
Stella pinned up her unwashed hair with a silver clip and hoped it would pass muster. In the bathroom mirror she saw a stranger’s face, older than her own, with sadness in the eyes. Get a grip, she said out loud, and brushed on a quick coat of mascara.
A beautiful woman, Rufus thought, but did not have time to say. Azin Qureshi thought so too, when Stella opened the door to him and his wife. He had not met her or Rufus before; his wife, an editor at
was the intended guest, and he had only been invited for the sake of politeness. He noticed the tendrils of hair, the fine bones of her face. With a professional eye he noted too the signs of tension round her mouth.
Sparkling wine beside the fire in the drawing room; the kitchen table laid with silver, lit by candles. Rufus beamed around the table at his guests. They had come downstairs to a kitchen warm with the scents of garlic and tomatoes; they were comforted by Stella’s game terrine and Rufus’s fine claret. Between the fish stew and the apple tart, Stella served a perfectly ripe Roquefort and conversation flowed. It centered for the most part on the dire financial state the country had suddenly found itself in, apparently to everyone’s complete surprise. We are on the edge of a cliff, a banker said. And the trouble is that no one knows how far we’ll have to fall.
Stella listened to the chatter with half her mind on refilling glasses, clearing plates, offering more food. She understood, of course, that the economic situation was important, but she had heard an identical conversation the previous Thursday, and the week before. No one particularly sought her opinion; she was left to produce dinner and consider the assorted guests. The banker; the Shadow Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, with her partner; a headhunter; Jenny McCann from
and Azin Qureshi, her husband, who was sitting on Stella’s left. He was a community psychiatrist at St. Elizabeth’s. From time to time the others solicited his views on the effect of the crisis on mental-health care or the Health Service more generally but, like Stella, he did not have much to offer the debate. Instead, like her, he listened.
By the time the tart was eaten the guests were too full of wine and food and too sleepy to talk facts, but too settled to leave the table and go home. As usual the evening trailed away into inconsequential talk—of Easter holidays, the likelihood of snow on ski slopes at this time of the year, Easter eggs and how it was just a matter of time before someone marketed a chocolate calendar for Lent. Speaking of which, the headhunter, who was also a neighbor, said: did anyone see the story about the church at the end of this street?
The woman recounted the story, in a slightly altered version. Stella knows the church, said Rufus vaguely.
There’s such a lot of this sort of nonsense, the Shadow Minister’s partner said. You know. Jesus on a burger, Allah on a piece of aubergine. Sorry, he said then, in the direction of Azin Qureshi. Azin laughed.
But, the headhunter interjected, who’s to say it’s nonsense? Really? I mean, okay, the burger is a bit far-fetched but, you know, seeing things, like visions . . .
“The vision thing,” the banker quoted. But these days, if someone said they’d seen a vision, you’d lock them up in safe surroundings. I mean securely padded ones, wouldn’t you, Azin?
I don’t know about locking them up, Azin said, but I expect that if their visions were troublesome to them, we’d consider medication. A lot of borderline psychotics “see” things or hear voices.
Wasn’t that the thing with saints? asked Jenny. They were actually epileptics? Or whatever. Basically, in need of medication. All that falling around in fits and going into ecstasies and developing those marks on their hands and feet; what are they called, I can’t remember?
Stigmata, Stella said.
I don’t actually see why it’s so improbable, the headhunter went on. Voices and visions, I mean. As a society, we’re curiously selective about what we choose to believe. Or allow other people to believe, perhaps. Yet millions of people do believe that God gave Moses ten commandments, or that Allah dictated the Koran to Mohammed.
So much easier for him if they’d invented Dictaphones, murmured the minister.
Yes. But you have to draw a line somewhere, her partner said. What about
The Book of Mormon
? Lots of people seriously believe that wotsisname found the word of God buried by an angel in the mud somewhere, but we know that’s barking mad. So what’s the difference between
The Book of Mormon
and Moses’ stone tablets? Or the Koran, if it
comes to that? If you ask me, a woman who thinks she saw a statue bleed falls under the same category, self-delusion.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy, the headhunter remarked, conclusively.
That’s right, said Jenny. When in doubt we turn to Shakespeare. So much safer than the Koran or the Bible.
Rufus laughed. We don’t do God, he said.
Fidelma surveyed the black baby Mary-Margaret had lugged in. He was small and sticky and dressed in what Fidelma took to be pajamas, the top and bottoms printed with blue penguins. The baby looked at Fidelma and began to cry.
I hope you’re getting paid to look after him, she said.
I am not, said Mary-Margaret. I’m doing it for love. And besides, if I take money it messes with my benefits. Look, Ma, look at his dinky little feet. She took a raspberry Viennese biscuit from the packet on the table and popped it into Shamso’s mouth. The crying stopped.
He did indeed have tiny feet, Fidelma thought. Well, babies do, she felt like saying to her daughter. But then it was quite possibly true that Mary-Margaret had not had much to do with babies, unlike Fidelma. Eight of them there’d been, double the number of the children of Lir, with Fidelma the second eldest of the team. For a while it seemed you’d only pop out for a walk to find when you got home there was some new brat bawling its wee mouth off in the crib. There was nothing Fidelma did not know about the care and handling of babies. Even now she could bring
back the smell and taste of that gripe water—Woodward’s, wasn’t that the name?—she used to take a nip out of the bottle for herself when her mother’s back was turned.
Runny noses, cold bare feet, the saggy droop of sodden nappies. All those open mouths and empty bellies. And then there came a time when the empty bellies could no longer be half-filled, and their daddy gone. But in between there were some good times in the old place on the strand. More and more, as the years went on, those early days of childhood would return, and feel more real to Fidelma than the times she found herself adrift in now. In this slow procession of days, each one as like to the one before as to make no difference except whether she would have a feed of haddock or of bacon, what was there to dwell on but the past? And better far to go back to the old days than to admit the cold thought of the years to come.
Mary-Margaret was down on her knees with Shamso on the floor. Like a great big child herself, her mother thought. Well, of course she
a child in most respects, notwithstanding her thirty-three years upon this earth. This fact was not a fact on which Fidelma usually allowed herself to dwell. Today, for no reason she could name, it hit her with great force and made her softer than she should be. Play pat-a-cake with him, she said.
What’s pat-a-cake? her daughter asked.
Oh you know, Mary-Meg. Reach over and I’ll show you, then you can show the wean.