Authors: Francesca Kay
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Literary, #Religious
Mary-Margaret shuffled closer, on her knees. She put her hands up to her mother’s. Her fingers were thicker than Fidelma’s, despite Fidelma’s size; the skin of them red and roughened, but the tips peculiarly smooth, as if
washing had rubbed away the whorls. The bandage round her wrist was getting dirty. Fidelma clapped her hands together first and then gently against her daughter’s. Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, baker’s man. Bake me a cake as fast as you can . . .
Shamso laughed at the sight and sound of the women clapping. Never have I heard that before, said Mary-Margaret.
Liar, said her mother, with a stab of guilt. It could be true, of course. When Mary-Margaret was a baby, life was far too hard for games. To keep a roof over the child’s head and put food into her mouth was about as much as Fidelma could ever do. Or more, from time to time. No one could expect her to play at patting too. Although, it must be said, her own mammy had somehow managed it, even with all those other mouths to fill. How else would Fidelma know the actions and the words? Perhaps it had been easier for her, because there were so many. She had only to teach the firstborn and he could pass it to the next like an inheritance, or a birthright, or a spell. Here comes a candle to light you to bed, here comes a chopper to chop off your head. How many miles to Babylon? Three-score miles and ten. Can I get there by candlelight? Yes, and back again.
Back again the words came, from the buried horde. Mary-Margaret showed Shamso. He understood the patting but not the alternating hands; in any case he chuckled, and Fidelma saw his perfect teeth, his contagious, gummy smile.
There were songs too, that her mother sang. And those she
sung, in her turn, to Mary-Margaret; sad songs for
the most part but when you came to think of it, was there any other kind of song that would be worth the singing? Even the songs you would suppose were intended to be funny were melancholy really when you looked deep down. In Dublin’s fair city, where the girls are so pretty, I first set my eyes on sweet Molly Malone. Now her ghost wheels her barrow through the streets broad and narrow, crying . . .
Crying. Fidelma’s mother sang sad songs to lull her babes to sleep. All the small girls in one bed, Fidelma too, nestled warm and wriggling like a basketful of puppies. Fidelma’s little sisters: Bridget, Maeve and Mary, Deirdre and Siobhan. Twelve kicking feet and twelve poking hands and somewhere in the room their mammy, sitting in the darkness, singing her sad songs. Oh mother, oh mother go dig my grave. Make it both long and narrow. Sweet William died on yester eve, and I will die tomorrow.
Fidelma might not have played with Mary-Margaret, nor read to her, nor even maybe talked, but she had sung, and that she did remember. She had sung those lullabies at night to banish darkness and will the light to come, to fill the silence which would not be filled by any spoken words within her power. And Mary-Margaret, her fat and pink and unlooked-for baby, had cooed and gurgled and tried to woo her mother into love. She had never been much trouble in herself, that at least Fidelma must admit. A placid, peaceful baby with a great capacity for sleep. Truth be told, the lullabies were never needful. As long as she was reasonably warm and reasonably fed, Mary-Margaret would fall asleep and sleep for hours, the sleep of the dead, while her solitary mother sang sad songs in the nighttime to herself.
Until she, along with Bridget, Maeve and Mary, was sentenced to the sisters, Fidelma had never heard of silence. In the cottage by the strand there were always voices. Even in the night there were children murmuring in sleep or breathing so loudly their breath itself was like a song. A memory of early on was lying in bed in the damp tangle of her sisters, wide awake and listening to the voices of her parents. Wordless voices like two lines of music, a higher and a lower, twining themselves around each other like stems of briar rose, questioning and answering, turn and turn about, a prayer and a response.
And if there had not been voices, there would have been the wind. There, on the shoreline, the wind was never still. All through each day and every night it whispered, it confided or it howled. It prowled round and round the house, looking for the cracks in windows and the bare patches in the thatch. Its banshee music rose and fell, rose and fell, was so soft sometimes that you could half forget it until it screeched again as a sharp reminder. It never relaxed its vigilance; in kindly mood it stroked the hair back off your face, in cruel it pulled it sharply.
And underneath the wind’s voice was the sea’s. Suck and sigh, or thunder roaring, constant as the beat of blood. Fidelma never listened to the sea, as she never listened to her heart, but once removed inland to the sisters, she listened to its absence, and the silence that replaced it was menacing and cold.
There would be seals on the rocks a few yards from the strand and once in a blue moon they would add their singing voices to the wind’s and to the sea’s. As children, Fidelma and the others had wanted to believe the tales of seals and
mermaids, of beautiful young girls who arrived mysteriously, wived fishermen and bore them children, only to disappear as suddenly as they had come. Or seal princes who took human form and stole the hearts of lonely maidens and stole too the babes they fathered on them. In the darkness of winter nights it had been Fidelma’s fearful pleasure to imagine her own mother in the other room, sliding out of bed, casting off her nightgown, slipping naked through the house, white as bone, as moonlight, white as broken shell, lifting the latch of the kitchen door, as quiet as a fish so as not to wake her trusting husband. Running down the silver sand on white feet, into the caressing sea. Finding there, in the kingdom of the drowned, the children she had pined for and forgetting the ones she’d left behind.
When Fidelma’s father upped and went, she was too grown-up to think that he had gone back to the sea. But the old fears seeped into her dreams. One night she woke in terror, darting up to make sure that the youngest, Ronan, was where he should be, in his crib, not appropriated by his father and carried down to the dark depths of the cold salt sea. No trace of him for consolation but a snippet of black hair, a frond of coral and a single gold coin left as nurse’s payment.
Ronan was barely three months old when he lost his father. A beautiful baby he had been, big brown eyes and dark eyelashes; maybe that explained her dreams. Fidelma had not seen her brother these forty years or more; he might as well have drowned for all she knew. And it shall come to pass on a summer’s day, when the sun shines bright on every stane, I’ll come and fetch my little young son, and teach him how to swim the faem.
This new pet of Mary-Margaret’s had shiny dark eyes too. She was hoicking him around with her, dancing flat-footed through the rooms, trying to keep him happy. He needs some toys, she said. But we haven’t any, have we? What can he play with, do you think?
Give him here, Fidelma said. Mary-Margaret dropped the child onto her lap. He sank into its depths and for a second looked as if he were about to cry again but then he settled, softly cushioned in her folds. How strange it was, Fidelma thought, to hold a child again. Hush now, she said to Shamso. There’s a good boy. And she sang.
In the delight of having Barnaby back from Ethiopia, Stella forgot the previous evening and the shame of staying silent. “What would St. Peter say?” she heard the cloister voices ask—the defending of one’s faith was every Christian’s duty. But Stella’s own was pale, she felt, flimsy as the roots of wild violets and as like to shrivel in harsh light. And anyway, her own table was not the proper place for declaration, if it might discomfort the invited guests. She turned her attention to her eldest child, this amazing person who had a man’s full height but not yet a man’s full breadth; who was impossibly narrow, filthy, travel-stained and beautiful, casually pleased to see her, eager to be off again with friends almost as soon as he was home. He dropped his backpack in the hall. His sandaled feet were dark with dust and he had grown a beard. When Stella reached to touch it he shied away. In his bag he had a present for her, a small wooden figure, cracked and worn but still recognizably the figure of an angel, one wing missing, the other broken to
a stub. I bought it in the market, Barney said. The man swore that it was very old but you can’t really tell. Anyway, I thought you’d like it.
I do, she said. It’s beautiful. Thank you so much, darling. Would you like a bath?
Barney was to stay two nights in London before leaving for Shropshire, where his girlfriend lived. Stella and Rufus were to drive down then to the constituency, where she would remain until Thursday, Felix’s end of term. Rufus had marked off a whole day in his diary for time alone with Stella. Afterward he was going to New York. The family would gather again in London on Easter Sunday, when Stella’s mother and stepfather would join them, with Rufus’s brothers and their wives. Two branches of a family entwined, a day of feasting and celebration. Stella was looking forward to it. She knew she would feel the absence of Camilla more acutely for the presence of the others, but she loved the thought of three generations round one table, her sons together, the strength of kinship, the solidity it meant, if only for a while. She would roast the Easter lamb in the Italian style, as her mother had done and her grandmother before her, and Felix would paint Easter eggs, even if he did so now only to please her.
Felix, that Friday evening, crossed another day off his chart and contemplated time. Six whole days. Two of these days elongated by the collapse of normal structure—on Saturday mornings there were lessons, but Sundays were an interminable wasteland to cross and Wednesday, being the final day of term, would be given over to house competitions.
It was a mystery to Felix why there was so much battling for place. House rugger, house swimming, house drama, house singing; what was it supposed to teach? Of late he had become interested in entomology, especially in ants. The cleverness of these scuttling things had impressed him. He had observed their teamwork and the way they tackled the challenge of transporting creatures so much bigger than themselves to the hungry companions back home in their nests. A beetle to an ant? Like a blue whale to a minnow, Felix thought. It would be absolutely no use if the ants held competitions to see which team got to carry off the dinner; they ate because they worked together, like prehistoric hunters killing mammoths. If their hunts had been arranged by prep schools, they would all have starved.
Felix smiled grimly at the picture in his mind of a house mammoth-hunting competition. But it didn’t help. There was still this eon to get through. Eon. He said the word out loud. It sounded as it should do, like a howl. A yawning chasm of six days. Adults would think that was no time at all, a mere blink, but it was time enough for God to have made the whole entire world. The light and the darkness, the fish of the sea, the fowl of the air, and every creeping thing that creepeth on the earth. Ants. Except, of course, he didn’t. As everybody knows, from the fossil record.
An eon. Infinity. A thought to make you dizzy. Lying on the ground, looking up into the sky, imagining an endless space, an endless time, gave you the same feeling that you got on the flying waltzers at the fair, the same sick lurch and the sense that nothing was quite steady. Lying
on the ground, with the whole world spinning round you, you probably looked like an ant in the eyes of God. If God was looking. If God was there. Which Felix suspected he was not.
Being a ten-year-old at this school was like being a creeping thing upon the earth, or one of those small creatures that must have had to spend their whole lives hiding while enormous dinosaurs stamped round, roaring and thundering away, miles above their heads. A leptictidium, perhaps. Felix’s life was spent scurrying from lesson to lesson, from meal to meal, from games field to study room, hoping he would not be stopped or noticed.
Alice Armitage was also counting the days, although she did not keep a chart. Three weeks from yesterday, and Fraser would be home. She and Larry still referred to the bedroom Fraser had shared with his brother as the boys’ room, even if neither son had slept in it for years. But it still had some of their things in it—football boots, Scalextric, a collection of cassette tapes that no one would ever play again. In the cupboard was a tidy stack of colored plastic boxes full of toys that Mrs. Armitage was keeping for grandchildren. She and Larry hoped there’d be some soon. Stewart had been with his Emma for a long time, having already gone through one sad and short-lived marriage. Perhaps the recollection of that failure was what was stopping him from tying the knot with Emma. If so, that was sad. Mrs. Armitage remembered the wedding vividly, Stewart’s new mother-in-law making as much fuss as if it were a royal marriage instead of two young
people barely out of their teens and a reception in the village hall. That silly girl had not been local—she had met Stewart at college—and, quite understandably, she’d wanted to be married in her own church rather than the one in which Alice and Larry Armitage had worshiped for thirty-something years. The Armitages did not mind. There’s one God, as they often said, and he doesn’t care what brand of place you kneel in.
A white veil, yellow roses, baby’s breath. And less than two years later that girl had hightailed it and run off with someone she liked better. Or fancied at the time, perhaps. Poor Stewart. He had been very low. But he had cheered up now with Emma.
Fraser’s girlfriend Stephanie was lovely. Mrs. Armitage quite understood that he could not have asked her to marry him before he went to Afghanistan, that he did not want to put her under pressure, even though they had been living together for three years, on and off, when he was not in barracks. But maybe, when he got back. Maybe he’d feel that it was time to settle. When he got back. When he got back.
She opened the door of the boys’ room and looked in. Take care, love, she said to the bed on the left, with its neatly folded duvet. Silly cow, she said then, to herself. Talking to yourself’s the first sign of madness.