Authors: Francesca Kay
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Literary, #Religious
At Mr. Kalinowski’s earlier that afternoon, Mrs. Armitage had come on quite a scene. The poor, poor duck; he was so upset, and indeed no wonder—wounded dignity hurt more than wounded flesh. He was trying to clean the mess off the carpet when she arrived and would never have opened the door to her, him in his underpants, if
she had not persevered. When he had not answered the first ring, she had given him a minute or two before trying again. Then she grew quite worried. If Mr. Kalinowski had been going out that afternoon, Alice Armitage would have known. It would have been a red-letter day for him and he would have told her. As it was, he went out once a month to a Polish ex-servicemen’s club in Ruislip to which a fellow veteran would drive him. And he went to church. Otherwise he had very few engagements, and so Mrs. Armitage pushed open the letter box and called through it, then started banging on the door.
Eventually Mr. Kalinowski opened it, a tea towel clutched around his waist. Alice saw he had been crying. The smell in the sitting room informed her of the accident, without the need for words. It happened so quickly, Mr. Kalinowski said. My leg was hurting. I couldn’t get out of my chair . . .
Never mind, love, she said. These things happen. It’s not the end of the world. Have you got some Flash? I’ll have the carpet clean in no time; you just pop along and change.
Mrs. Armitage rinsed the old man’s trousers in the sink and put them in his washing machine. Then she had made them both a cup of tea. Mr. Kalinowski was still a little shaky, but composed. She swilled Dettol round the sink. He kept things very nicely, she noticed, glancing round the tiny kitchen.
I’d be lost without you, Mrs. Armitage, he said, as she was leaving.
Now Mrs. Armitage was looking forward to the evening. Old friends who had moved away to Suffolk were coming back to visit, and they all were going out to a restaurant.
She loved the luxury of a meal she had not had to cook. It was a good restaurant, newly opened on Battersea Bridge Road—real food, not vacuum-packed and microwaved; lamb shanks and sea bream, goats’ cheese soufflés, duck confit. Anticipating dinner, a nice bottle or two of wine and the pleasures of friendship reaffirmed, Mrs. Armitage went to her bedroom to get dressed.
Other people were marking days. Kiti Mendoza was organizing a Facebook event for Easter Sunday, when, if you could trust the notice in that stupid church, the cross would be unveiled. People were going to gather in the church and afterward they’d have a picnic in the park. It was a holiday weekend. She was not on duty. A party in the park, those disposable barbecues that were not expensive, a sort of carnival, like there was at home; something to look forward to at last.
Every morning of that week Mary-Margaret went to mass. She took her place in a pew toward the back, went to Communion, knelt quietly, left as soon as mass had ended, and did not stop to talk to Father Diamond, as she would have done before. She did not try to enter the Chapel of the Holy Souls. But, as she stood or sat or knelt through the familiar incantations, her whole being was focused on one thing. Although her lips apparently moved in prayer, it was nothing more than reflex, the mouthing of unapprehended words. She went through the motions like a ventriloquist’s doll. Inside her head her own voice spoke its real meanings: love and longing, desire, fidelity and passion. She transmitted them telepathically to Him.
Passion Sunday. Father Diamond looked bleakly at the calendar. Passion Sunday, Palm Sunday, the threshold to Holy Week or the entrance to a tunnel, the mouth of a deep well. This year, more than ever before, Father Diamond doubted his own strength. Did he have the stamina, or indeed the will, to plunge through that door into the week ahead, to suffer each day’s events all over again, to walk the weary Stations of the Cross in the footsteps of the Lord? Once, he would have held on to the promise of Easter as a traveler on a winter’s night might fix his gaze on a lamp burning in a distant window, the light promised to an exile on return. The glory and the triumph of the Resurrection would have shone out like a fire on which his Lenten sacrifices would be burned, together with the petty deprivations, the insults, the disappointments, the trials of the flesh of forty days. All these would be last year’s ashes, consumed by the conquering flame. But this year he could feel no sense of hope. The whole of life seemed as thin and dull as his Lenten diet: black coffee, unbuttered toast, pieces of fish that he unhatched from plastic casings, like mutant embryos entangled in their cauls.
For years Father Diamond had been forswearing animal flesh and the products of flesh in Lent. He took no sweetenings or alcohol either. Usually he appreciated the increased clarity of mind, the sharpened edge, that these small restrictions gave him. They brought him nearer to the desert saints he venerated, who lived their solitary lives in parched, high places; in the salt lands without name; in wilderness, concentrated on prayer alone and
close to God. This year he experienced only hunger. Hunger of the acid, nauseous kind and a sort of tiredness; sensations as flat and as discreditable as a habitual drunkard’s headache.
Passion Sunday was particularly hard. All those raised hopes dashed and celebratory voices silenced, the sweet hosannas on the lips of children stilled. How could Christ have borne it, riding to Jerusalem in triumph through adulatory crowds who strewed His way with branches and with cloaks, knowing He would die an agonizing death in days?
Father Diamond did not for a single moment equate his suffering with Christ’s. He knew that in the scales of pain his own weighed no more than a flake of ash. But he knew he was suffering nonetheless. The problem was that diagnosis gave no clue to cause. Why, suddenly, this year, should his life seem so sad and stagnant when nothing outwardly had changed and his circumstances were the same as they had been for twenty years? Not having an answer, he was afraid. The black hole of the week ahead might be the gaping jaws of hell. How could he force himself to go there, drag one foot after another, plod inexorably onward into darkness? And yet, how could he not? What choice had he? He missed Father O’Connor, who was not due back for another three weeks. In the meantime he must hang on to the liturgical routine as a seafarer in a storm clings to the handrail of the deck; he must mark the days and plead for strength.
Red vestments for Palm Sunday. The color of spilled blood. Blood matted on a crown of thorns, beading on a wounded head.
Fidelma woke in the dead of night, her heart thudding hard against its buried cage of bone. Darkness pressed her down, surrounded her, piled up in her mouth and throat. She could not breathe. She could not see. The thunder of her racing heart was the sound of galloping death, or maybe she was dead already. She was gasping, choking, fighting to cough the darkness out, fighting for her breath.
Coming to her senses, she knew it was that dream again. Her nightdress was soaked with sweat, even her sheets were wet. Oh God Almighty what a struggle it was even to sit up in bed, let alone to get clean out. She heaved and squirmed, leaned her bulk on one arm, pressed down with one leg, until at last she sat upright. The light switch was to hand. Not again, she thought, wearily. It came so often now. She knew from dreary experience there was no use haring after sleep; it would have flown toward the dawn.
All through the long hours that followed, Fidelma sat, propped unevenly by pillows, trying to calm her breathing, to steady herself against encroaching fear. But it lapped against her anyway. This room might as well double as her coffin. She would never get out of it again. There would be no touch now that could reconcile her to her flesh. Her mouth was full of fear; it had the taste of earth and ashes.
Azin Qureshi found his mind returning to Stella Morrison even as he went about the ordinary business of a weekend—taking his sons to football on Saturday morning, mending a broken light fitting, catching up on work. It was
not that the dinner party had been particularly memorable. His wife’s professional life was sociable and Azin was used to accompanying her to a lot of dreary functions. That evening in Battersea had been pretty much what he had expected: middle-aged and middle-class people bewailing the state of the world, or at least its schools and ski slopes, over too many bottles of what they were pleased to call “ordinary” claret. People just like him, as a matter of fact. Theirs was his world too. But Stella had not seemed to fit it as precisely as she should. He couldn’t put his finger on the reason why. Outwardly she was no different from other women of her type. She was beautiful, certainly, in a distracted way, but then so was his wife Jenny, more so, with her elegantly cropped blond hair and supermodel figure. By contrast Stella was will-o’-the-wisp and indefinable, all strands and tendrils and impossible to pin down, a figure in a graveyard seen through mist. It irritated Azin that she should haunt him.
One reason why she might, Azin supposed, was the inconclusive conversation they had had about the absurdity of visions. He had observed Stella then, seen how she was about to speak but then held back, seen her almost imperceptible withdrawal from the others, her distance from her husband. His life was full of words; silence was beguiling.
Mary-Margaret in her room, oblivious of her mother, was full of fear too. In the early morning she knelt beside her bed. The day was coming closer; she was eager and impatient but she was also deeply anxious: what would He ask
her to do? Would she be strong enough for the task? Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, she prayed over and over again. But only say the word and I shall be healed. Only say, only say the word, only, my own darling, only say one word, but say it straight to me.
Stella Morrison woke to a still morning and the call of birds. With each day and its small new freight of light, their songs grew stronger, as if they were members of an orchestra emerging one by one from hibernation, tuning up with caution, trying out a few notes before releasing the full range of their sounds.
Otherwise it was very quiet. Rufus had left yesterday for New York. Stella stretched diagonally across the bed. Where Rufus would have slept the sheet was smooth and cool; she slid a foot luxuriously along it. There was a whole day and night ahead of her with no one in it and nothing to do but please herself. And tomorrow she would have Felix back.
Stella got out of bed and drew the curtains. Last night the sky had been clear, obsidian-hard, the stars like sharpened points of steel, auguring a frost. But a west wind must have changed the weather’s mind; this morning was more gentle, there was the promise of sunshine, ice transubstantiated into mist. A whole day ahead and the countryside around her wakening from winter, pushing out fresh shoots, scented with sap and rain.
Stella had many mornings on her own but fewer uninterrupted days. Having had no supper yesterday, she was hungry now. The kitchen of the cottage was as orderly
and still as only a room that has been left by a sole occupant can be. Everything was in its place as it had been the day before; if the small creatures of the night had passed through in the dark hours, they had left no trace behind. There was apple juice in the fridge pressed locally from the fruit of nearby orchards: Worcester Pearmain on the label. The juice was very cold and sweet and cloudy; she swallowed it as thirstily as if the night had been a desert. Apple scent, breaking on her tongue.
A boiled egg in a blue cup, a jar of clear honey. Stella held the jar up to the light; in it the honey glowed like melting amber. She laid the table properly for her breakfast—a pale blue linen napkin, milk in a white jug. From time to time Stella’s unobserved habits gave her pause. Perhaps I was never made to be a wife, she thought. Although I would rather not have lived than not have been a mother. These little rituals—the knives and teaspoons carefully placed, the twin triangles of toast—these were the rituals of a woman on her own. If there were a watcher hidden in the corner cupboard, Stella wondered, spying on me through the keyhole, would I be ashamed? Would it be more normal, on my own, to eat my breakfast quickly, standing up, with my attention on the radio or the television news, as Rufus would? Yet the fact is that I
unobserved. And small ceremonies afford great comfort. The ordinary miracle of an egg.