Authors: Francesca Kay
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Literary, #Religious
She left him to it while she changed. She couldn’t take off all her normal clothes, not there, not in the sacristy, so she only removed her fleece and knitted top. The dress was a bit too tight, quite a bit in fact, but it was lovely—a shiny fabric overlaid with lace, long sleeves with pearly buttons—and in any case they had only had one in the shop. She wriggled it over her head, pushed her arms into the sleeves and got completely stuck. Shamso, hearing her cry of fright, looked out from his surplice tent and laughed. Extricating herself somehow, Mary-Margaret tried again, leaving her arms out, tugging hard. Something tore, but she paid no notice. Her heart was beating so wildly now she thought she might black out. But mercifully then she heard the voice again, reassuring, calming her, telling her not to be afraid. The white folds of the dress slid into place. Taking
a deep breath, Mary-Margaret put on the veil, scooped Shamso out of the hanging robes and unlatched the connecting door into the church.
Stella, Felix and Father Diamond converged on the path by the side of the church. Stella and her son were almost invisible behind the branches of mimosa, the roses and the green fronds they both carried. Hello, Felix culpa, Father Diamond said, in a greeting that Felix could construe but did not understand; so Birnam Wood has come to Dunsinane!
There is more to carry, Stella said. We have cherry blossom, but no broom. And lilies. They are in the car.
I’ll fetch them, Father Diamond said. First let me open the door. Stella had a smudge of yellow pollen like gold dust on her cheek; she was looking very beautiful, Father Diamond thought.
He opened the door, held it to let Stella and Felix pass, and set off down the path toward the car. Stella, having laid her flowers on the counter by the sink, went after him, telling Felix she would be back in a second. Felix, alone in the sacristy, admired the floating whiteness of the robes and the embroidery on the priest’s clothes, the entwined flowers and leaves, the contrast with the austerity of the black ones hanging from their hooks. He had been in this place before, with Stella, but seldom; he enjoyed the sense of trespass and of privilege it brought him. Through the open door daylight poured in; the air at once had filled with the scent of flowers.
In the church Mary-Margaret had made her preparations. She had to keep an eye on Shamso all the time,
in case he did more damage, but he, awed perhaps by the silence and the space, the dimness broken by pools of color spilled by sunlight through stained glass, the lifelike figures, stayed close to her and made no sound. She was glad to see that Father Diamond had not yet prepared the altar. There was nothing on it but a linen cloth.
Come, Shamso, she said to him, my lamb. Let’s go and say our prayers. She led him by the hand to the Lady Chapel and held him close to her as she knelt before the statue. Blessed Mary, ever-virgin, pray for me, she said. That I will stay as pure as you, and worthy of your Son. Shamso stared solemnly at the blue-cloaked lady and was quiet. Mary-Margaret struggled to her feet, still clasping him. She had one more prayer and one last hope, before she did the thing she had to do.
There He was, in the Chapel of the Holy Souls. Ah, she breathed. I know that my Redeemer lives, who died for me, and for my mother’s sins. She gazed up through the darkness at His sorrowful face. She ached to touch it, to kiss it, to set her mouth on His, to wipe away His tears. He said nothing, and His eyes remained downcast, but Mary-Margaret felt a sudden rush of strength, a warm rush that gave her such a sense of certainty and purpose that she no longer had the slightest doubt. And with that pulsing heat another feeling. One that flowed from a secret part of her, an excitement that was also languorous, that made her think of stretching out on soft grass in hot sunshine, looking into loving eyes, an unimaginably gentle hand, a fluttering of yet unopened wings inside her.
I love you, she said out loud. And she hugged Shamso closely, pressing her lips to his yielding cheek.
Putting the child down, she took one of the candlesticks from the foot of the cross and beckoned him to follow her to the high altar.
Alice Armitage, hurrying toward church, trying to remember if Father D had said five or half past, running through the mental list of what she had to do, wondered why she felt uneasy. It was an anxiety that stayed just out of sight, a troubling shadow in the outer field of vision, a sense of foreboding that was strange to her, this most rational of women. It must be that dream I had last night, she said, or a touch of gippy tummy; silly nonsense, but even so, as she walked at her brisk pace down Riverside Crescent, she found herself saying over and over again: please keep him safe, O Lord, O Lord, please keep him safe.
On a low shelf in the sacristy were two china bowls, ordinary kitchen bowls, half-filled with incense. One was labeled
, the other
. Felix picked out a crystal of the myrrh. It had no scent in his fingers so he supposed it must need fire. He replaced it quickly when he heard returning footsteps on the gravel path—his mother’s or the priest’s. Then he heard the scream. He did not stop to think. It was a high-pitched scream, a baby’s, or a cat’s, a cry of complete terror. He wrenched at the latch of the connecting door and hurtled through into the church.
A black child on the whiteness of the altar, lit by a single candle, struggling against green ropes. A child howling. A
veiled figure robed in white, facing the cross, back to the body of the church, one arm upraised, the candle’s flame reflected in a knife blade. The knife was poised. Stop, cried Felix, rushing to seize the lifted arm. And Mary-Margaret, startled by the sound and frightened, jerked round and swung the knife out wildly, catching Felix in the neck.
Stella, arriving at the door, saw the spout of red. She flung herself at Felix and caught him as he fell, the blood still pulsing, his eyes rolling backward in his head. Father Diamond, close behind, was frozen. Get something to stanch it, Stella ordered, clearly, and not shouting. He heard her through the noise of the shrieking woman and the wailing baby. The first thing to hand in the sacristy was his embroidered stole; he grabbed it and ran to Stella.
Alice Armitage was perturbed to find the main door locked. There were only three hours to go; Father Diamond was cutting it a bit fine, surely? Arranging flowers properly took time. She went round to the side door. It was open. There were terrible sounds inside. The sight that met her was unreal, a nightmare, or a vision: Stella Morrison kneeling by the altar with a child in her arms, both of them drenched in a red so bright and clear it could not be anything but innocent; Father Diamond kneeling by her; Mary-Margaret O’Reilly stock-still beside them, making rhythmic, choking, high-pitched sounds like a soul in torment, or a tortured dog. And, lashed onto the altar, a small child. A sacrifice, a deposition, a pietà, a hideous sacrilege.
Alice kept her head. Immediately she found her mobile
in her handbag and keyed in 999. Ambulance, she said. And the police. She doubled back into the sacristy to get an altar cloth from the chest there, folded it and crouched down next to Stella to help put pressure on the wound. Felix was not conscious. Alice only knew the boy by sight. She couldn’t remember his name. You’ll be okay, sweetheart, she kept saying. Hang on in there, love. Father Diamond, in the way now, stood up and for the first time took in Shamso. The child had nothing on except a nappy. Three lots of green cord bound him to the altar, at his ankles, thighs and chest. The knots were tight and difficult for fumbling fingers to undo. After an eternity of struggle, Father Diamond gathered the sobbing child into his arms. Alice instructed him to open the main door to save the paramedics time.
They took Felix and Stella. The police, arriving minutes later, tried without success to get some sense out of Mary-Margaret and finally led her away. Others came for Shamso. Screeching sirens intensified the horror. Neither the priest nor Mrs. Armitage could identify the child, and for a moment Father Diamond was reluctant to surrender the warm and trusting weight of him into the policeman’s arms. More police were promised; scenes of crime and so on, but for a few minutes Alice Armitage and Father Diamond were on their own. They faced each other, blood spattered on the bloodstained sanctuary, and there was nothing they could say. Racked, both of them, with heaving sobs, they stumbled into one another’s arms and clung there, until more policemen came.
Fading daylight giving way to the blaze of streetlamps and neon-bright stairwells; lights flaring across South London, in cars, in windows; buildings making frames of black. Fidelma stopped in her own darkness for a while, watching the lights flash on, strings of lights like precious stones. Was Mary-Margaret intending to make a habit of staying out till late, without saying where she was going or when she was coming back? Fidelma was not particularly worried. Mary-Margaret was an adult now; responsible, up to a point, able to look after herself, to some extent. The accident—the broken head—well, that was a one-off surely; no one could be so careless or unlucky as to incur a second hospital admission within a fortnight or thereabouts. Although it was true, of course, that lightning could strike twice. But not very likely all the same.
That Mary-Margaret might have a secret life struck Fidelma as absurd. She was an open book, that girl—concerned solely with God and shopping. And neither of them especially perilous pursuits, in the usual way of things, the foreseeable run of the world. No, the probable explanation was that she had gone off somewhere with the baby she treated like a doll, and would be back in time for the fish cakes that she knew her mother would be cooking. And in the meantime her mother was not discontent to stay in her roosting place by the window, with her cigarettes and a tube of spring-onion-flavored Pringles. These thin wafers of green-flecked potato nestled one into the next so satisfactorily, with the elegance of a snake’s backbone or the scales of a fish. And broke so crisply on the tongue, blessing it with an aftertaste of salt and fat.
Thousands of miles away, Camilla Morrison slept easily on her mattress in a room with a bamboo-slatted floor, lullabied by tree frogs and the softness of a warm wind full of rain. In a pub in Much Wenlock her brother Barnaby held the hand of the girl he loved and decided not to go home till tomorrow. He texted his mother with his change of plans and turned off his telephone. Beginning the climb into the air in a first-class cabin above the Atlantic Ocean, Rufus Morrison caught on his skin the scent of the woman whose bed he had left that afternoon. He would not share that bed again, nor would the woman want him to; for both of them it had been an insignificant encounter. Sergeant Fraser Armitage, in Musa Qala, checked his watch and reminded the boys to get an early night. It might be Easter Sunday in the morning but that made no difference here. It would be their last patrol. They were warned against becoming demob happy. Much closer to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, but further away from home, Kiti Mendoza and her Auntie Rita were filling spring-roll wrappers with shredded pork and bean sprouts, ready to be fried tomorrow. And, in a windowless room in St. Elizabeth’s, Father Diamond found Stella.
They don’t want me there, she said. They said it would be better if I waited here. She did not look surprised to see him.
I’ve got your car keys, he said. How is he? He had left his church still buzzing with police officers and their clamor of witnesses and statements, cordoned areas, padlocks and
guards. They had wanted him to stay but he had insisted on going to Stella; anything else would have to wait, he told them, with a new firmness of purpose. He had picked up her keys from where she had left them by the flowers and had checked her car was locked. On an impulse he also picked up a stem of cherry blossom.
The corridors of the hospital were deathly familiar to him; their chemical reek; the harsh lighting, the sad notices on pinboards offering advice or invitations to buy raffle tickets. Everybody shuffling or hurrying through those passages seemed portentous in a way they would not in an ordinary place, as if each had a secret, either as sufferer, survivor or as healer, or were bearing occult knowledge. Father Diamond had noticed this before, as an observer merely. Tonight he shared in their importance, was bonded to the people in the corridors by the blood of a child and the pain of a suffering mother. He carried something in his heart that had more weight than anything he had known before.